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What Does it *Really* Mean to be Physically Active?

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

There is a widespread push to live an active lifestyle, stay fit, work out, etc. But what does that actually mean to you as an individual? Being told to simply “be active” doesn’t offer any clear guidelines or explain what you could change. The current Canadian guidelines for physical activity are:

“To achieve health benefits, adults aged 18-64 should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity per week in bouts of 10 minutes or more”(

To someone recovering from an injury, or starting from a point of significantly less activity, those guidelines can seem as unattainable as running an ultramarathon is for someone who jogs 5k once a week. Sure, it’s possible, but the difference between where you are now and where you want to be puts the goal over the horizon.

So what can you focus on as a more attainable goal? First let’s talk about what it means to be moderately or vigorously active: When your exercise professional talks about moderate to vigorous physical activity, we’re talking about any activity that you are doing that makes it hard to hold an even conversation due to your heavy breathing. It’s important to focus on that type of perceived difficulty as opposed to just defining each activity as objectively light, easy, moderate, or vigorous, because your experience of how hard the activity is depends on your personal starting point. If walking around the block with a walking aid is enough to make you feel out of breath and in need of a break, that is moderate to vigorous physical activity for you. In this case difficulty is entirely in the experience of the beholder. This also means that as you get more fit and used to doing a given activity, it may no longer be as difficult for you. What started as a pretty intense exercise has now become light, and in order to meet your individual “active lifestyle” goals, you’ll have to up the ante and find new ways to push yourself.

Next let’s discuss the key point about duration: 150 minutes/week is the equivalent of 30 minutes/day for 5 out of 7 days/week. Again, when you’re in a recovery phase of your life, or just plain busy, devoting 30 minutes a day can seem like an impossible task. That is why the guidelines specify that health benefits are seen when you complete bouts of 10 minutes or more at a time, accumulated in comparatively shorter bursts throughout the day. Aiming for 10 minute bouts can also allow you to have more variety in your movement: from mini dance parties, through roughhousing with your kids, to walking up several flights of stairs at work, fitting in short bursts of activity throughout the day can leave you literally breathless and help you hit your overall activity goal.

Finally, let’s talk about the giant pink elephant in the conversation: What about those of you who struggle to do 10 minutes of physical activity a week, never mind multiple bouts in a day? The key here is to think about your baseline. Start by figuring out what you are currently able to do, how often, and for how long. Lets say your current ability is to spend 2-5 minutes walking with 30 minutes of rest before you can make the return trip, and you can do that three times in a week, that is what we would set as your baseline. Another part of figuring out your baseline is to figure out what activities you like to or are willing to do: Not all of us are built to be runners, hikers, cyclists, do zumba, etc, and you are far more likely to stick with your plan if it’s based around something you enjoy. It’s important to take a few weeks to be sure you know what your baseline is, and how consistently you are able to achieve that level of activity. Only once you know what you are currently capable of doing will you be able to plan how to make changes. Often finding out this baseline can be surprising, and sometimes disappointing. It’s important not to let this dissuade you from being willing to try - we all have a place to start, and it’s as unique and personal as our fingerprints. Once you know your baseline, the next step is to build a plan.

As a general rule, you can expect to increase your physical activity by a maximum of 10%/week from your starting point. This means that if you are starting with three five minute walks/week, you will be doing a maximum of 1.5 minutes more, total. Basically you’ll move from 5 minutes to 5.5 minutes per walk. Often, each time you increase the duration of an activity, you will notice what seems like a drastic change to your experienced fatigue for what didn’t seem like a very big change. It’s a normal response to changing your activity, and often requires that you increase your activity level more gradually than the 10% a week max. In some cases that will mean that one day you walk for 6 minutes, and then the other two days you go back to your standard 5 minute walks. As small as these changes can seem, doing so consistently and thoughtfully over time makes a significant cumulative difference. At a conservative change of 5%/week, after three months(12 weeks) a person starting at the baseline laid out above would be completing almost 27 minutes of activity each week. Compared to 15 minutes max at the start, they’d be doing nearly twice as much activity each week. At this conservative 5% change each week, an individual starting at 15 minutes each week would be meeting the 150 minutes/week before the end of their 48th week (<25 weeks at 10%/week). That means that in less than a year an individual can go from a comparatively small amount of regular activity to achieving Canadian guidelines for physical activity. It’s important to keep in mind that because each weekly change is based on the activity of the week before, the increased activity becomes exponentially more over time.

Being more active is often a daunting prospect, and most of us want to find a quick fix and make fast changes. Unfortunately, trying to do too much too quickly often leads to injury or setbacks, so it’s important to be consistent and to keep your focus on your long term goals. Tracking your progress over time is helpful, because you can see where you started and how far you’ve come. Equally important is forgiving yourself for weeks when you’re too tired or busy to complete everything you had planned: Life happens, things will get in the way, and you’ll have to refocus and get back on track. Physical activity has a host of benefits both physiological and psychological, so it’s important to recognize it as a form of self care, not punishment.

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