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Physical activity guidelines - a minimalist approach

By Ben Csiernik

Exercise, and physical activity are two concepts that can be extremely intimidating. Both are commonly misrepresented in the media, online, between friends, and especially in our own heads. In this article, I’m going to outline what exactly the physical activity guidelines say we should be doing. However, instead of saying how we MUST meet the activity guidelines, I’m going to try and break down a minimalist approach to physical activity.

We do need to address a simple fact first; 16-18% of Canadian adults meet the physical activity guidelines (1). While the rest of this post will be about some minimalist strategies, I think it’s important to note that only 1/6 Canadians are meeting the thresholds set out as a standard. Also, before anyone gets mad, more exercise is better than less. Meeting the guidelines is great too. There, I said it, now back to the minimalist approach.

First Things First: What do our Physical Activity Guidelines recommend?

The most recent American and Canadian guidelines see things a little differently, however they’re pretty similar. Here they are below:

1) Canadian Guidelines for Adults (2):

A) 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity per week in bouts of 10 minutes or more, per week. B) Two days of muscle and bone strengthening (read: resistance exercises). C) Doing more aerobic and resistance training than recommended leads to increased results.

2) American Guidelines for Adults (3):

A) 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity, 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity per week, or a combination of both. Bouts can be accomplished in as little as FIVE minutes at a time. B) Two days of muscle and bone strengthening per week. C) Doing more aerobic and resistance training than recommended leads to increased results.

MAJOR differences: The American guidelines say you can exercise in bouts as little as five minutes at a time compared to 10, and doing 75 minutes of vigorous activity can be satisfactory. I like this, because doing something is better than doing nothing, and telling people they NEED to do 150 minutes of exercise a week is a pretty good way for people who aren’t comfortable and familiar with exercise to feel overwhelmed. Additionally, the American guidelines say this “Some physical activity is better than none”. ß Let’s not forget this moving forward.

Now, when it comes to aerobic training (read: cardio), “moderate-to-vigorous” are nice words, but they’re defined in relation to heart rate during exercise (calculation here). Now if you’re like me and don’t have a device that tells you your heart rate, we can ballpark if we are in the moderate or vigorous zone with a very fancy tool, the talk test. “As a rule of thumb, a person doing moderate-intensity aerobic activity can talk, but not sing, during the activity. A person doing vigorous-intensity activity cannot say more than a few words without pausing for a breath” (3). That’s it, no singing allowed if you’re in the moderate zone, simple as that. You heard it here first.

This guy clearly didn't pass the talk test, look how NOT tired he is!

At least 150 minutes? 75 minutes? 2 days of resistance training? This is a lot.

I agree. I’m a firm believer that the guidelines are a great GOAL to work towards if you’re someone who isn’t reaching it right now, or if you’re working with someone who is not familiar with exercise. I’m also a firm believer that we should ideally exercise every day, but that’s not a reality for most of us, myself included.

With that being said, lots of people just don’t enjoy exercise, or truly don’t have that much free time. So what is the minimalist approach for those people? Let’s look at time, type, and strategies.

1) Time: In a 2019 study by Dunlop et al., the authors found that in people at high risk of developing osteoarthritis (OA), or who already had OA, performing 56 or more minutes of moderate-to vigorous activity showed a significant difference four years later in disability-free status in mobility (4). Simply put, an hour of exercise per week gave them a much higher chance of being able to move and live their life. 97% of people who exercised for 56 did not have a mobility disability four years later, compared to 76% in the group that did not meet that exercise standard. That’s a pretty significant difference. The study didn’t specify what type of exercise either, so pick your poison there. Overall, what’s a minimalist outlook for a protective level of exercise for keeping us mobile? Let’s call it an hour. 2) How long do my workouts need to be? In a 2019 study by Jenkins and her co-authors, they found that performing 5-minutes of stair climbing, 3 separate times during the day led to significant increases in Vo2 max (aka fancy science-y oxygen breathing ability), and power output (5). 15 minutes total per day, in 3 separate five minute “exercise snacks”. For busy people, this is great news! We can make significant progress with minimal equipment and with minimal time.

3) Didn’t those guidelines say we needed to do resistance training? You’re right, they did. Resistance training is good for our muscles and bones, that’s a claim I feel comfortable enough to make without a citation. Resistance training can be intimidating too, so let’s once again use a minimalist approach. A 2020 study by Escriche-Escuder et al., used a 5 day a week, 15 minute at work resistance training program (6). Using ONLY resistance bands and body weight, they performed a 6 exercise circuit consisting “1) squat, 2) back squeeze, 3) deadlifts, 4) torso-twist, 5) push-ups, 6) side bridge” (picture at the end of this post). They did 1 set of each exercise, that’s it. As the weeks went on, they used thicker resistance bands, and performed less reps, following pretty simple progression. If you want to see the progressions, check them out here. At the end of the study, the exercise group had increased wellbeing, less pain, and a significant desire to keep on exercising. Overall, all good things with a simple, low barrier to entry program. This group did workout 5x per week, but starting at two days per week on this program would be a great way to begin to meet those exercise guidelines efficiently.

A Simple Overall Summary

1) The benefits to exercising and moving start WAY before 150 minutes of activity; doing something is better than doing nothing.

2) You don’t need to do long workouts, and you can break your exercise up during the day when you can find time for yourself, even if that’s two sets of 5 minutes of, well anything, that gets your heart rate up. Which leads me to...

3) Pick exercise that you like. You should try and aim to do some resistance training each week, but just like the theme of this post, there are simple-ish ways to do that.

4) For the clinicians out there. Help people find time in their day for some exercise snacks. Don’t just tell them that they should exercise, help them schedule it, and find common ground on exercises they won’t mind doing, because remember, doing something is better than doing nothing.



1. Canadian Health Measures Survey: Activity monitor data.

2. CSEP guidelines:

3. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans:

4. Dunlop DD, Song J, Hootman JM, Nevitt MC, Semanik PA, Lee J, Sharma L, Eaton CB, Hochberg MC, Jackson RD, Kwoh CK. One hour a week: moving to prevent disability in adults with lower extremity joint symptoms. American journal of preventive medicine. 2019 May 1;56(5):664-72.

5. Jenkins EM, Nairn LN, Skelly LE, Little JP, Gibala MJ. Do stair climbing exercise “snacks” improve cardiorespiratory fitness?. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2019;44(6):681-4.

6. Escriche-Escuder A, Calatayud J, Andersen LL, Ezzatvar Y, Aiguadé R, Casaña J. Effect of a brief progressive resistance training program in hospital porters on pain, work ability, and physical function. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice. 2020 Mar 30:102162.

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