When it comes to your fitness levels—or the amount of work your heart, lungs, and limbs can perform—there’s no doubt that a good, hard sweat is great for you. Vigorous exercise like running, swimming or playing tennis leads to greater improvements than easy or moderate workouts, like brisk walking, ballroom dancing and slow bike-riding.
But fitness and health, while closely related, are not always aligned. Research is now finding that you don’t have to put yourself through punishing workouts in order to optimize your health.
In a study last year, scientists from the U.S. and Europe found something surprising: the more moderate exercise people do, the more their cardiovascular health improves and their mortality risk drops. When it comes to vigorous exercise, smaller amounts seem to be linked with maximal health benefits.
A 2016 study even found that moderate exercise may beat vigorous when it comes to reducing risk for diabetes. “We have found that moderate-intensity activity improves insulin sensitivity more than vigorous-intensity activity in both obese and overweight individuals and in those with pre-diabetes,” says Dr. Robert McGarrah, a cardiologist and medical instructor at Duke University School of Medicine. It’s possible that moderate-intensity exercise may be superior when it comes to “clearance of fat deposits in the muscle,” he explains.
Some studies have linked vigorous exercise to stronger hearts, but those may not have taken into account the fact that people who engage in hard exercise may also expend more energy throughout the day—not just during their workouts, says McGarrah. He says total energy expenditure may be more important when it comes to your cardiovascular health, regardless of how hard you push yourself during exercise.
Findings like these are important because many people still believe that exercise has to be excruciating in order to provide big benefits. Not only is that untrue, but it's also harmful, says Michelle Segar, director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center. This sort of thinking leads people who can’t stick with regular rigorous workouts to think of themselves as failures, and in some cases to give up on exercise altogether, she says.
Segar is the author of a new study showing that many people avoid exercise because they assume it will be unpleasant or time-consuming. “Most people have the old ’80s and ’90s view that physical activity means going for a long run or doing a hard gym workout,” she explains. “But we know exercise doesn’t have to be intense or uncomfortable to be good for you.”
She blames public misconceptions on a “barrage of marketing” from fitness companies, gyms and TV shows and adds that medical researchers and journalists, though well intentioned, also play a role. Though exercise can act like powerful medicine in the body, there is not necessarily a calibrated dosage. “There are ideal targets, but even if you can’t hit them, a little is much better than nothing," Segar says. “The old success-or-failure, hit-or-miss model of exercise is unhelpful.”
“The true value of exercise is in just getting off the couch,” says Catrine Tudor-Locke, chair of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a researcher of the impressive health benefits of walking. She explains that almost all of the health perks research has linked to exercise—from a stronger heart and lungs to more energy and clearer thinking—increase the most when people move from a sedentary lifestyle to a modestly active one. “You continue to get benefits from exercise, but the returns are increasingly diminished,” she says.
If you’re the type who enjoys vigorous exercise and feels crummy if you miss your daily five-mile run or CrossFit session, then keep it up. “But you can still congratulate yourself if you only have time and energy for a 10-minute walk,” Segar says.
There’s no shame—and plenty of payoff—if easy exercise is more your speed.