Purpose: To examine the importance of relative versus absolute intensities of physical activity in the context of population health.
Methods: A standard computer-search of the literature was supplemented by review of extensive personal files.
Results: Consensus reports (Category D Evidence) have commonly recommended moderate rather than hard physical activity in the context of population health. Much of the available literature provides Category C Evidence. It has often confounded issues of relative intensity with absolute intensity or total weekly dose of exercise. In terms of cardiovascular health, there is some evidence for a threshold intensity of effort, perhaps as high as 6 METs, in addition to a minimum volume of physical activity. Decreases in blood pressure and prevention of stroke seem best achieved by moderate rather than high relative intensities of physical activity. Many aspects of metabolic health depend on the total volume of activity; moderate relative intensities of effort are more effective in mobilizing body fat, but harder relative intensities may help to increase energy expenditures postexercise. Hard relative intensities seem needed to augment bone density, but this may reflect an associated increase in volume of activity. Hard relative intensities of exercise induce a transient immunosuppression. The optimal intensity of effort, relative or absolute, for protection against various types of cancer remains unresolved. Acute effects of exercise on mood state also require further study; long-term benefits seem associated with a moderate rather than a hard relative intensity of effort.
Conclusions: The importance of relative versus absolute intensity of effort depends on the desired health outcome, and many issues remain to be resolved. Progress will depend on more precise epidemiological methods of assessing energy expenditures and studies that equate total energy expenditures between differing relative intensities. There is a need to focus on gains in quality-adjusted life expectancy.