Exercise volume and intensity: a dose–response relationship with health benefits

The health benefits of exercise are well established. However, the relationship between exercise volume and intensity and health benefits remains unclear, particularly the benefits of low-volume and intensity exercise.
The primary purpose of this investigation was, therefore, to examine the dose–response relationship between exercise volume and intensity with derived health benefits including volumes and intensity of activity well below international recommendations.
Generally healthy, active participants (n = 72; age = 44 ± 13 years) were assigned randomly to control (n = 10) or one of five 13-week exercise programs: (1) 10-min brisk walking 1×/week (n = 10), (2) 10-min brisk walking 3×/week (n = 10), (3) 30-min brisk walking 3×/week (n = 18), (4) 60-min brisk walking 3×/week (n = 10), and (5) 30-min running 3×/week (n = 14), in addition to their regular physical activity. Health measures evaluated pre- and post-training including blood pressure, body composition, fasting lipids and glucose, and maximal aerobic power (VO2max).
Health improvements were observed among programs at least 30 min in duration, including body composition and VO2max: 30-min walking 28.8–34.5 mL kg−1 min−1, 60-min walking 25.1–28.9 mL kg−1 min−1, and 30-min running 32.4–36.4 mL kg−1 min−1. The greater intensity running program also demonstrated improvements in triglycerides.
In healthy active individuals, a physical activity program of at least 30 min in duration for three sessions/per week is associated with consistent improvements in health status.

Alex’s Notes: It is well established that volume and intensity lay on a bell-curve with the optimal amount of each being a compromise between the two. Of course depending on the goals of the person, this bell-curve may be shifted in one direction, but the concept remains. You cannot perform high-volume work at maximal intensity, and although you can perform low-volume work at low intensity, this will not benefit goal-progression. And this doesn’t just apply to athletes and bodybuilders. Even minimal levels of physical activity, well below recommended ranges, have shown to have health benefits. So while we may be able to deduce a lower-range for health improvement, we still do not know what the bell-curve looks like and where “optimal” may be. As such, this review sought to examine the relationship between volume and intensity on health markers of healthy middle-aged men and women.

The participants were assigned to one of five exercise programs lasting 13 weeks: 10 min of brisk walking once per week, 10 min of brisk walking three times per week, 30 min of brisk walking three times per week, 60 min of brisk walking three times per week or 30 min of running three times per week, or a control group prescribed no additional exercise training.

Interestingly, only the 30-min brisk walking and running 3x/week protocols improved VO2-max significantly, while the 60-min brisk walking did not. All three improved relative to the control group, however. Overall, low-volume exercise training (10-min brisk walking 3×/week) demonstrated improvements among fasting plasma glucose, while larger volume exercise programs demonstrated more consistent improvements including body composition, aerobic capacity, musculoskeletal and hemodynamic improvements.

Unfortunately, the participants were already healthy and somewhat active, making these results less applicable to sedentary individuals. The good news is that the sedentary people would probably see even great improvements than this study group did, and likely with less effort as well. That said, given the benefits of being more active even if you already do a daily gym session for an hour, it may be prudent to add in a 30-minute brisk walk 3x/week. Perhaps after dinner to aid digestion, or during your lunch break at work. It’s summer, so get outside and enjoy it.


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