The daveynutrition guide to physical activity for every level

What is physical activity?

Did you know that ‘exercise’ and ‘physical activity’ are different? Exercise refers to structured activity which aims to improve one or more elements of fitness.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes physical activity as: ‘any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. This  includes activities undertaken while working, playing, carrying out household chores, travelling, and engaging in recreational pursuits. Therefore, physical activity can be carried out outside of structured exercise sessions.

Lack of physical activity is now the 4th leading risk factor for mortality around the world. Yet many of the world’s population are still not meeting the recommended guidelines of physical activity each week.

How much physical activity do I really need?

The WHO also recommends that adults aged between 18-64 should engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. 

Moderate intensity exercise means that exercise occurs at about 50-70% of your maximum heart rate. Vigorous physical activity would occur at 70-85% of your maximum heart rate. A guideline to calculating your maximum heart rate would be to subtract your age from 220. Therefore, if a person is 35 years of age, their maximum heart rate during physical activity estimation would be:

220 – 35 = 185 (beats per minute)

Moderate exercise for this person would occur at a heart rate of 93-130 beats per minute.

Vigorous physical activity for this person would occur at a heart rate of 130-157 beats per minute.

The WHO also recommends that muscle strengthening activities should be done at least twice per week. Muscle strengthening activities include anything which involves resistance such as carrying heavy objects, walking uphill, cycling, bodyweight exercises (squats, push/pull/chin ups etc.) gardening, lifting weights or using resistance bands. Note: you do not have to attend a gym to engage in muscle strengthening activities!

What if I cannot measure my heart rate?

If you do not have a fancy gadget for measuring heart rate, you can use the following guide:

Moderate physical activity: your breathing has quickened, you can hold a conversation but cannot sing!

Vigorous physical activity: breathing is rapid and deep, you cannot hold a conversation other than saying a few words at a time.

150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week could look like:

  • Monday 30 minutes in the evening + use of resistance bands 
  • Tuesday – 15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes at lunchtime
  • Thursday – 40 minutes in the morning + bodyweight exercises 
  • Saturday – 30 minutes at lunchtime, 20 minutes in the evening

OR it could look like:

Tuesday – 60 minutes in the morning

Wednesday – 20 minutes at lunchtime + 40 minutes of gardening 

Friday – 40 minutes in the evening

Sunday – 1 hour cycle 

Simple ways to increase your physical activity throughout the day could be:

  • Walking or biking to work if possible
  • Instead of meeting a friend for lunch or dinner, grab a coffee and head for a walk
  • Join an exercise class or group – it is much easier to motivate yourself when others are involved
  • Invest in a standing desk for work
  • Incorporate 5-10 ‘movement snacks’ into your day whereby every hour on the hour you move for 5-10 minutes. Each minute adds up!
  • Play some games outdoors with the children
  • When on the phone, get up and walk around 

It is extremely important to note that everyone has different physical fitness levels. Remember to begin slowly, gauge how you feel and build your levels slowly, with the guidance of a trained professional and in conjunction with clearance to engage in exercise from your GP.

Did you know that there is a physical activity pyramid just like the food pyramid? 

The above pyramid contains 6 levels containing different physical activity types and intensities and it can help us to plan our physical activity. Each level contains the FIT principles (described in more detail later) which determine how often (F-Frequency), how intense (I- Intensity) and for how long (T-Time) the movements at each level should be carried out.

The bottom, broadest level is Step 1 which takes regular daily movement into account. This  should contribute the greatest amount to our physical activity. We should aim to engage in activities from this level daily for at least 30-60 minutes. Activities from this level include normal movement each day, housework, walking around or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. 

Step 2 and 3 refer to vigorous aerobic activity which we should aim to do 3 times per week either in a team sport setting or individually for at least 20 minutes.

From Step 4, we can see that strengthening exercises such as resistance training. Individuals should aim to perform this type of exercise 2 or 3 days per week and to practice the principle of progressive overload on major muscle groups. Progressive overload is discussed in detail below. 

Step 5 involves ensuring that we maintain flexibility and mobility in our movements. This could include stretching and activities such as yoga, at least 3 times per week. 

The top level refers to energy balance. In order to remain in a balance of energy we must be expending (or ‘burning’) the same amount of energy as we are consuming. Any shift in energy balance will result in a negative or positive energy balance and subsequent weight loss or gain.

Don’t forget to have a look at the performance nutrition pyramid detailed in this article.

An example of a typical exercise week using the physical activity pyramid:


Regular movement throughout the day 

Flexibility and mobility session 

1 x 30 minute resistance workout using bodyweight exercises 


Regular movement throughout the day


30 minute run 

Regular movement throughout the day


1 x 45 minute resistance exercise class

Regular movement throughout the day 


20 minute yoga class

1 hour of tennis 

Regular movement throughout the day 


Outdoor games with the children


20 minute brisk walk


30 minute flexibility and mobility session

Regular movement throughout the day

When thinking about starting an exercise regime consider the following terms:

Specificity and Individuality: When thinking about physical fitness, the regime you follow must be individual to you based on your current fitness level and your goals. A person who has not done any physical activity in months will have different levels of fitness and different goals compared to a Premier League football player! Think carefully about how realistic your goals are and make reasonable mini and long term plans to achieve these goals in a sustainable manner. In addition, remember that your individual response to exercise may be very different to someone following a similar plan or pursuing a similar goal. Do not compare yourself, go at your own pace (excuse the pun!). We have more about sustainability and setting realistic goals in this article.

Progressive Overload: This refers to continuously adding to your current exercise regime in order to improve. In order to progress, we must constantly adapt and add to the stimulus on the body. This may include adding more weight to the bar in the gym or increasing the length of your run. Progressive Overload allows for adaptation over time, enabling us to perform better. 

Overload Priciple Infographic – from the ISSA.

Reversibility: A reduction in fitness may occur if you stop training or significantly reduce the training you had previously been doing. However, there is a fine line between optimal training for an individual (based on their current fitness level) and allowing for adequate recovery. Optimal recovery allows for progressive overload and adaptations to occur correctly without the risk of injury or fatigue. Consistency with training and monitoring training load is of utmost importance. 

Check out this article to further understand and optimise your recovery.

Variance: Variety is the spice of life! It is important to vary your regime to continuously challenge your body and to ensure that you do not become fatigued or bored of your exercise regime. 

So, where can you start?

In conjunction with recommended guidelines and the pyramid outlined above, the following acronym may be helpful to enable you design and monitor your individualised workout plan:


Frequency: decide how often you are going to aim to workout. Be realistic! Do not plan to run for 1 hour for 5 days each week if you currently struggle to walk up the stairs! A more realistic goal for frequency in this example would be to aim to walk at a brisk pace for 3 minutes and jog for 1 minute for a total of 15-20 minutes three times per week initially. Or, why not sign up for a couch to 5k initiative and get some friends involved for further motivation and support.
Intensity: this refers to how intense your workout is and again and must be very specific to you. If we consider the above example, adding 100metres sprints into your first day of your running programme may not be the wisest option! However, once you become comfortable with a pace you can sustain, you may increase the speed of a shorter run once per week and build on this pace over time. 
Time: How long will each session be? This will depend on your goals and of course, your schedule. If you are a beginner, start out by aiming for the recommended levels of physical activity each week. If you are a more advanced athlete, you may be in a position to increase the duration of training sessions or increase the intensity (as outlined below).
Type: Is your exercise specific to your goals? If you are someone who wants to build muscle mass, it would be important to focus on resistance exercise to achieve this goal. If you are aiming to increase your speed during a game, your training type must reflect this.

Physical activity is extremely important for overall health. Applying the principles above can help you to find structure and enjoyment in your exercise regime so that it is sustainable and provides long-lasting benefits!

Struggling to find the motivation to workout at the moment or don’t know where to start? Here are some of our favourite resources:

Sport Ireland

Athletics Ireland



Couch to 5k by the Irish Heart Foundation

Couch to 5k Step-by-Step Guide from the NHS 

Youtube has numerous workout videos suitable for all levels and there are also millions of apps available which cater for all exercise types and abilities.

Don’t forget that we also have a fantastic blog with some full body workouts designed by Cillian Rearden for you to try! Remember the 4 R’s of  recovery and how best to set your own specific goals in a realistic way when planning your physical activity.

People who are involved in team sports or those following their own training schedule often have very days of moderate intensity activity, higher intensity activity and rest days. For this reason the daveynutrition meal plans have been designed to suit a typical training week with training and rest days. On training days, meal plans contain a slightly higher amount of carbohydrate in order to adequately fuel training. On rest days, meal plans are packed full of protein to aid the recovery process and contain a little less carbohydrate to account for lower energy requirements. The meal plans can be customised to suit each and every training schedule and fuelling need. Check out these articles which detail fuelling and recovery strategies.

All recipes can be filtered based on exercise intensity and to account for preparation and recovery from exercise. Use the drop-down filter on the recipe page to select a recipe that best suits your activity level.

Don’t forget to tag #daveynutrition in your recipe creations and let us know your meal planning and training regimes are going! Sign up today to become part of the daveynutrition team and access our meal plans, articles and much, much more!