Exercise has changed my life and career more than any other habit.
I exercise most mornings, primarily for the mental clarity it brings me throughout the remainder of the day. I can achieve this mental sharpness with just a 30-minute run in the morning at a moderate pace (9–10 minute mile).
But in addition to optimal daily performance, I also aspire to live as long and healthy a life as possible.
Therefore, I went in search of the best exercise routine for longevity.
Dr. Valter Longo is one of the world’s foremost experts on longevity. He is the director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and of the Program on Longevity and Cancer at IFOM (Molecular Oncology FIRC Institute) in Milan.
Dr. Longo has studied longevity for more than 30 years, and he has concluded how to exercise to increase healthy lifespan. In fact, his research shows that physical activity is the number 2 factor affecting lifespan, behind only diet.
Here is the routine that Longo recommends to maximize longevity:
Walk fast for an hour every day
This doesn’t need to happen all at once. For example, if the train station is a 15-minute walk away from your house, and you do that each way, that’s 30 minutes right there. Then you could pick a coffee shop that is a 15-minute walk away from your office, and make a daily visit. Those might not be your exact circumstances, but you get the idea — find places that are walkable and go there every day. On the weekend, walk everywhere, even faraway places — do your best to leave your car in the garage or driveway all weekend long.
Do cardiovascular exercise for 2.5–5 hours per week
Running, cycling, or swimming are all great options, but the type of exercise you choose isn’t important. The key is working your body to the point of breathing rapidly and sweating. A simple way to hit this exercise threshold is to have a stationary bike and a road bike (go outside when the weather permits, otherwise ride indoors), and make a point of riding for 30–40 minutes every other day, and for 2 hours total on the weekend.
Use weight-training or weight-free exercises to strengthen all muscles
This can be the classic gym routine, but your muscles also become stronger when you take the stairs instead of the elevator (Longo advises to always take the stairs!), walk instead of driving, grow food in your garden instead of buying it, and do manual work around the house instead of hiring someone to do it. When you do engage in a hard weight-training session, consume at least 30 grams of protein in a single meal within 1–2 hours afterwards to maximize muscle growth.
In terms of how long you should exercise per week, research shows that most of the beneficial effects are caused by the first 2.5 hours. For example, a large Australian study of over 200,000 people aged 45–75 found that those who exercised (at moderate to vigorous levels) at least 2.5 hours per week had a 47% reduction in overall mortality. Going up to 5 hours per week led to a 54% reduction in mortality. Ensuring at least some of that activity was in the vigorous range dropped the risk of dying by another 9 percent.
Another very large study involving more than 650,000 people in the U.S. and Europe showed that mortality was reduced by 31% for people who exercised for at least 2.5 hours per week at moderate intensity (or for more than 75 minutes at vigorous intensity). Increasing the exercise totals to 5 hours at moderate intensity (or 2.5 hours at vigorous levels) lowered the risk of dying by 37%.
Examples of moderate exercise include fast walking or slow jogging (faster than 4 mph), cycling (10–12 mph), or gardening. Examples of vigorous exercise include climbing stairs or hiking, cycling (faster than 12 mph), playing soccer, or jogging (faster than 6 mph).
So there is certainly some additional benefit of going up to 5 hours of exercise per week, with some of the exercise being in the vigorous range. But there are diminishing returns after 2.5 hours, and you want to avoid overworking your body by going much beyond the 5-hour limit per week. Over-exercising will cause damage over time to your knees, hips, and joints. You don’t want your body to break down prematurely because of over-taxing it.
My personal routine includes a 30-minute casual run in the morning, about 5 days per week. So I achieve 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week thanks to my morning run. Then I add in some vigorous exercise by playing about 2 hours of squash per week (I play about twice a week, for an hour each time). So in general, I would say that I get about 4.5 total hours of exercise per week.
And then I make a point of always taking the stairs. For example, I take the stairs from the parking garage at my office up to my floor, which is a total of 111 steps. Climbing those stairs every morning invigorates me for the work day ahead. Having meetings on other floors throughout the day enables me to rack up even more flights of stairs.
On the weekend, I walk everywhere possible. Take today for instance (I am writing this on a Sunday). I played squash for an hour this morning, and walked to the club and back — 15 minutes each way. Now I am writing this from a coffee shop that is a 15-minute walk away from my house. Once I return home, I will have walked for a total of one hour, in addition to my one hour squash session. I place a high value on living in a walkable area!
My routine is lightest in the area of strength training. I do 145 pushups each day, but otherwise don’t do any type of weight training. Squash is a full body workout, but I would like to add in some more upper body strength training to ensure that my muscles stay strong as I age.
I have found exercise to be a powerful performance-enhancer on a daily basis, and now I know how to exercise to increase healthy lifespan.
I hope you find these guidelines easy to follow and achievable. I would love to hear from you about the exercise routine that works best for you.
Andrew Merle writes about living well, including good habits for health, happiness, productivity, and success. Subscribe to his email list at andrewmerle.com.