How Much Exercise Is Enough?

How Much Exercise Is Enough?

I was blessed as a high school athlete to have earned a track scholarship at the University of Oklahoma. Then in medical school, with my sports training background, I began to explore whether exercise could be of value, much like an antibiotic, in treating infections or other medical problems.  

With antibiotics, we are taught that dosage counts. Too little would do no good and too much could cause harm. Could that be true with exercise? Now, we know that exercise can be used for many reasons. It is useful as a way to rest or relax, for muscle building or figure contouring. And it has cardiovascular and pulmonary benefits. 

All three of these categories have merit, but only one has the potential of saving your life, that is, the benefit of exercise in preventing or even treating cardiovascular disease—diseases of the heart and blood vessels.

The next question I attempted to answer in the 1968 publication of my first book, “Aerobics,” was, what are the top aerobic exercises? There are 42 exercises listed in “Aerobics” that I consider to have potential value in improving the cardiovascular system. 

Such improvement is characterized by increasing the body’s ability to utilize more oxygen, which is consistent with the definition I give for aerobics: “a method of physical exercise for producing beneficial changes in the respiratory and circulatory systems by activities which require only a modest increase in oxygen intake and so can be maintained.” The top five exercises to improve aerobic capacity are:

1)  cross country skiing

2)  swimming

3)  jogging or running

4)  cycling

5)  walking

Another question I had to answer was, how do we measure and equate the benefits of aerobic activity? The answer was “aerobic points,” which were based on the intensity and duration of the activity. For example, if you walk one mile in 18 minutes, it is worth one aerobic point. If you run one mile in eight minutes, it is worth five aerobic points. Cross country skiing for 15 minutes is worth 4.5 points; swimming 500 yards in under eight minutes is worth 6.25 points; and cycling five miles in 16 minutes is worth six points. The remaining exercises were also given point values, listed now in my fifth book, “Aerobics Program for Total Well-Being.” 

Next, aerobic benefits resulting in a good level of fitness were classified in two parts—aerobic, and health and longevity fitness. Aerobic fitness required 30 aerobic points per week and health and longevity fitness only 15.  

After establishing The Cooper Institute in 1970, we further expanded this concept in a landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Nov. 3, 1989. In this study, “Physical Fitness and All-Cause Mortality,” a group of 10,224 men and 3,120 women were followed for slightly more than eight years. Treadmill evaluations were used to classify people into five quintiles of fitness categories: very poor, poor, fair, good and excellent-superior. 

In the eight-year follow-up, we noted that if subjects moved from very poor to the poor category, there was a 58% decrease in deaths from all causes and a six-year increase in longevity for that group. Surprisingly, if they moved from the very poor category to the excellent-superior category, there was only a 65% reduction in deaths from all causes and a nine-year increase in longevity. 

So, your best investment in an exercise program is essentially avoiding inactivity, which enables you to move up at least one block on the fitness scale. A majority of people can achieve that goal by exercising for 30 minutes, either in parts or sustained, most days of the week, totaling approximately 150 minutes of activity. More vigorous activity requires only 75 minutes the same number of times per week to assure you of comparable results.

Finally, how much exercise may be too much if exercising only for good health or for competition? We discovered that if you were to exceed 15 miles per week running, there seemed to be an increase in musculoskeletal injuries, but for competition training, more than 15 miles per week will most likely be required. 

But walking and running below that level can certainly provide you with health and longevity fitness. Remember what I said: 30 minutes of activity—in parts or sustained— preferably five days per week, is 150 minutes of activity, which also is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.

I remind my patients, “Fitness is a journey, not a destination, and it is what you did yesterday, not what you did one month ago, that counts.”

Let me conclude by quoting from one of my favorite Bible verses, found in Isaiah 40:31, “But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” ©2022 Kenneth H. Cooper


The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation. 

Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., known worldwide as “the father of aerobics,” is the founder and chairman of Cooper Aerobics in Dallas and chairman emeritus of The Cooper Institute.

Above: Clients work out at Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas.

Photo: Trevor Kobrin/Cooper Aerobics

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