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How much exercise do you need to prevent heart disease, cancer?

There's no doubt that regular exercise can help reduce your risk of serious health issues. New research reveals just how much we need.
/ Source: TODAY

There’s no doubt that regular exercise can help reduce your risk of serious health issues like colon cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. But new research reveals just how much exercise will make the most impact — and it’s a lot more than currently recommended.

The World Health Organization says that you should strive for a minimum of 600 metabolic equivalent (MET) minutes a week. The new research suggests aiming for five to six times that amount — 3,000 to 4,000 MET minutes/week — for maximum benefit.

A MET is a way of measuring exercise: at rest you use 1 MET per hour; walking briskly requires five times as much energy, so it has a MET of 5.

The more strenuous the activity, the higher the MET.

RELATED: How much exercise does your heart need?

To determine this new exercise goal, a team of researchers from the U.S. and Australia took a look at 174 different studies, allowing them to consider multiple health issues and many different types of activities.

“Before this, we didn’t know the top amount of exercise you should be aiming for every week,” said Hmwe Kyu, Ph.D, one of the researchers and acting assistant professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “We found that as you increase from no exercise up to 3,000 to 4,000 MET minutes/week, your risk continues to drop significantly. Once you hit that threshold, your risk will continue to go down, but at a much slower rate.”

In other words, you get the most bang for your exercise buck if you aim for the 3,000 to 4,000 MET minutes each week.

“By adding together many different studies, they were able to look at different kinds of exercise and different levels of those exercises,” said Dr. Anne McTiernan, a breast cancer prevention expert at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “This is very important because we needed good information on how much exercise provides the greatest health benefits.”

What does 3,000 to 4,000 MET minutes a week look like?

It can be a combination of a lot of different activities.

For example, to reach the total number, you need to do all of these every day:

  • Climbing stairs for 10 minutes
  • Vacuuming for 15 minutes
  • Gardening for 20 minutes
  • Running for 20 minutes
  • Walking or cycling for 25 minutes

Or do all of these every day:

  • Biking for an hour
  • Walking the dog for 30 minutes at a leisurely stroll
  • Cooking and washing dishes for half an hour

Or do this every day:

  • Running at a vigorous pace for an hour

“The number might seem large, but it takes into account any activity you do, like getting to work, running errands and picking up after your kids,” said Dr. Kyu. “Anything you do during the day can help you work towards that activity goal.”

That’s the key message: Don’t just think of being active as being at the gym.

“Add movement to your daily life,” said McTiernan. “Start going on a walk with friends instead of sitting with coffee or strolling around the soccer field while watching your kid’s soccer game — it all counts.”

RELATED: Here's how much exercise it takes to make up for sitting all day

If you need more motivation — by reaching the total 3,600 MET minutes level, compared to people who do no physical activities, you'll get these benefits, according to the University of Washington research:

  • 5 percent lower risk of breast cancer
  • 17 percent lower risk of colon cancer
  • 21 percent lower risk of diabetes
  • 24 percent lower risk of ischemic heart disease
  • 22 percent lower risk of ischemic stroke

The research was published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal.