Doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise five times a week is enough to meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendations for maintaining good health. But is it enough to lose weight? If you're already eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet with an appropriate amount of calories, the answer is probably yes — but some people will need more physical activity to lose weight.
Doing 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, five days a week, satisfies the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines for physical activity. Whether that results in weight loss depends on your diet; if you're consuming too many excess calories, you may need to add more physical activity to your day.
Why Calories Matter
While you do need physical activity to stay healthy, it's only part of the weight-loss puzzle. Your diet matters, too, because in order to lose weight you must establish a calorie deficit or, to put it another way, you must burn more calories than you consume. You can establish that deficit by cutting calories out of your diet or increasing your physical activity. But, according to research from the National Weight Control Registry, the vast majority of subjects who lost weight and kept it off accomplished it by using both methods.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, includes a useful table of estimates to help you determine ideal calorie intake based on your age, gender and activity level. For example, a sedentary 42-year-old man needs an estimated 2,200 calories per day, while a very active 42-year-old man needs about 2,800 calories per day.
If you're already meeting and not exceeding your calorie needs, and you're consuming plenty of nutrient-rich foods like colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy unsaturated oils, then adding 30 minutes of cardio five days a week may be all you need to lose weight. But if you're consuming more than your estimated calorie needs, you may need more physical activity to hit the calorie deficit that triggers weight loss. Or, you'll need to reduce your calorie intake.
A good target for weight loss is working out for an hour a day, five days a week; you can also spread those five hours of exercise out however you like in the week. For example, you might go for a brisk two-hour hike on one day, then work out for an hour on another three days of the week.
Troubleshooting Your Plan
If you're faithfully doing 30 minutes of cardio five days a week plus eating an appropriate amount of calories, but you're still not losing weight, try increasing the intensity of your workouts. This can make a big difference because the harder you work out, the more calories you burn. For example, according to figures from Harvard Health Publishing, a 185-pound person using a stationary rower at a moderate pace burns approximately 311 calories in a half-hour workout, but that same person would burn 377 calories by rowing at an intense pace for the same length of time.
Don't want to go all out for half an hour? Sprint intervals are a fun, effective way of increasing your workout intensity. For example, if you're cycling, you would pedal all-out for one minute, then recover by pedaling at a more moderate pace for two minutes.
Other factors may affect your weight-loss efforts, too, including hormone fluctuations, some prescription medications, dehydration and lack of sleep. If you think you're doing everything right but the weight just won't come off, a doctor, nutritionist or personal trainer can help you problem-solve.
Health Benefits of Regular Cardio
Cardiovascular exercise is great for weight loss, but that's not the only benefit you'll get from doing 30 minutes of cardio five days a week. Regular cardio exercise also provides a number of health-related benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic conditions.
Exercising regularly also functions as a natural mood booster, and it can bolster your immune system. And if you have a condition such as diabetes, arthritis or high blood pressure, doing regular cardio workouts can help you manage symptoms. It also improves your quality of life, especially as you near your senior years, when having good physical stamina can be the key to maintaining an independent lifestyle.
If you're pressed for time, you can work out at a vigorous intensity for 75 minutes a week (15 minutes, five days a week) and get the same health benefits gained by working out at a moderate intensity for 150 minutes a week (30 minutes, five days a week). For even more benefit, double that workout prescription to 300 minutes of moderate intensity cardio or 150 minutes of vigorous cardio.
But Wait, There's More
Although doing your 150 minutes of weekly cardio or 30 minutes five days a week meets the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines for physical activity, the guidelines also recommend strength-training all your major muscle groups twice a week. This will help your weight-loss efforts for two reasons: First, lifting weights burns calories; according to Harvard Health Publishing, a 185-pound person burns about 266 calories in a half-hour of vigorous weightlifting. Second, muscle is up to four times more metabolically active than fat, so the more muscle you build, the more calories you'll burn, even at rest.
Strength training also offers its own range of health benefits, from giving you the strength and endurance to make everyday chores — like lifting your kids or carrying groceries — easier to increasing bone density. If you have a chronic condition such as back pain, depression, arthritis or diabetes, strength training can help you manage those conditions; and it's even been shown to improve cognition in several small studies.
For example, in a study published in the March 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 100 elderly female subjects with mild cognitive impairment showed significant improvements in cognitive function after a six-month program of high-intensity, progressive strength training twice a day. And in a meta-analysis published in a June 2019 issue of Sports Medicine, researchers found that one session of strength training offered immediate improvement in cognitive function for healthy adults.
Getting a good strength-training workout doesn't have to mean spending all day in the gym. You can work all your major muscle groups in a short time with compound exercises such as leg presses, bench presses, lat pulldowns and planks for your core.
If you don't have a gym membership, you can work out with a few free weights at home, purchase elastic resistance bands or do body-weight exercises such as squats, lunges, push-ups and pull-ups.
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- The National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Dietary Needs per Day by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- University of New Mexico: "Controversies in Metabolism"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"
- Mayo Clinic: Aerobic Exercise: "Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical"
- Journal of the American Geriatrics Society: "Mediation of Cognitive Function Improvements by Strength Gains After Resistance Training in Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment: Outcomes of the Study of Mental and Resistance Training"
- Sports Medicine: "Acute Effects of Resistance Exercise on Cognitive Function in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review With Multilevel Meta-Analysis"