How many times a week should you work out? How long should a workout be?
These are smart questions to ponder, but what someone really wants to know is the minimum amount of exercise they need to see the best results. In other words, what is the most efficient way to achieve the most reward?
Worry no more, because answers to the quantitative qualms of exercise and physical activity are detailed right below!
Difference Between Exercise and Physical Activity
First, it is important to understand the subtle difference between exercise or regimented workouts and physical activity because they can offer different results.
Exercise can be defined as planned and regimented activity. Physical activity is anything that utilizes skeletal muscle such as walking around the office, doing household chores, or chasing after children. Formal exercise tends to be more intense in nature and is typically performed in a gym or like setting, whereas physical activity can be built into the day and might not even elicit sweating.
Whether one is more valuable than the other is still up for debate. Conventional fitness gurus swear by regimented exercise, whereas many ancestral health experts claim physical activity is equally if not more important than scheduled exercise. Why?
The major advantage of planned exercise is a greater degree of specificity, meaning one can expect to build major muscle groups or train for a long endurance running race with more precision. It can also instill more discipline and provide a sense of empowerment. Conversely, unregimented physical activity can easily fit into a day and offers more flexibility for ways to move.
Regimented exercise tends to work well for those who:
• Have specific fitness goals (i.e. running a 5K or building substantial muscle)
• Have 20 to 60 minutes to dedicate to exercise
• Enjoy routine
• Like taking group or personal training classes
• Easily hold themselves accountable
Unregimented physical activity tends to work well for those who:
• Do not have specific fitness goals
• Have very busy or hectic schedules
• Prefer spontaneous movement
• Like doing different forms of movement
• Do not like the extras of exercise (i.e. workout clothes, driving to a location, getting super sweaty)
With this being said, both are beneficial and one need not pick between the two. Instead, it is a good idea to incorporate some of both into the week. Choosing which one to do on any given day will be unique to each individual and can revolve around the answers to the following questions:
1. How much time do I have to move today?
2. How intensely do I want to move?
3. Will one or the other bring me closer to my fitness goals?
Current Exercise Guidelines
The American Heart Association recommends adults achieve 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity. They suggest this is the minimum amount of activity required to reap health benefits.
Picking this apart, moderate aerobic activity could equal five days a week for 30 minutes each or three days a week for 50 minutes. Vigorous exercise may be broken down into five days a week for 15 minutes or three days a week for 25 minutes, respectively.
While the above are advantageous goals, they are merely minimum guidelines intended to help people looking for an exact answer. However, the recommended amounts are quite arbitrary. Rather, how many days a week one should workout is very individualized based on their goals, preferences, lifestyle, fitness level, health status, and more.
Nonetheless, the AHA guidelines also suggest adding resistance and strength training into the mix at least two days per week and spending less time sitting. The guidelines likewise exclaim that one can gain even more benefit by working out for five hours per week.
Of note, under and overtraining can lead to negative health consequences. Under training is most often associated with a higher risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Overtraining is correlated with a higher risk of injury, secondary amenorrhea in females, muscle fatigue and poor recovery, and rebound weight gain.
Finding the balance of just enough can take some trial and error but some signs that you have found the sweet spot include:
• You are sometimes sore, but can still consistently workout
• As a female, you have a regular cycle
• Hunger and appetite are not overly subdued or increased
• You generally maintain motivation to workout consistently
• You easily maintain a healthy weight
• You can take off days without anxiety and you sometimes push through days of low motivation
• Most health parameters are within healthy levels (blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.)
How Many Days a Week Should You Workout?
There is no clear-cut answer to exactly how many days per week one should work out. Based on the American Heart Association recommendations, one should exercise approximately three to seven days a week to achieve the two and a half to a five-hour minimum.
Regardless of arbitrary guidelines, ancestrally speaking, it is healthy to obtain some movement most days of the week. Taking one full rest day offers many physical and mental benefits, so another recommendation could be to usually get a fair amount of movement on six days of the week.
Finding the exact sweet spot will be different for everyone based on the intensity of their activity, individual fitness goals, and lifestyle. A few unique scenarios include:
• Someone who is training for a marathon might run for 30 to 120 minutes on six days of the week
• Someone looking to build strength and muscle might work out for 30 to 60 minutes on three to four days of the week.
• Someone who works 12-hour shifts at a hospital may not formally exercise at all but still obtain 120 minutes of walking three days of the week.
• Another person may do yoga for 60 minutes on seven days of the week.
All of the above examples are considered healthy. It is more important to focus on building a fitness plan or workout routine, however loose or regimented, that is sustainable and enjoyable.
Even if it falls outside the subjective workout lengths and parameters, it is better to achieve some physical activity than none!
How Long Should a Workout Be?
Based on the AHA guidelines, a typical workout should be 15 to 60 minutes depending on the type of movement (aerobic vs. anaerobic vs. general movement) and intensity (steady-state cardio vs. high-intensity interval training). Generally speaking, these are solid recommendations.
However, just like the above points, this is a blueprint to achieve the minimum amount of expected health. Meaning, if one wants to potentially maintain a healthy weight and produce average lipid and blood profiles, they should aim to usually work out for that amount of time.
Interestingly, research shows that working out in 10-minute spurts is just as effective as working out in one chunk of time. This means for the overly busy person, working out for ten minutes a few times a day (two to four) is just as beneficial as dedicating a full 30 to 60 minutes at one time. This can make physical activity feel more achievable and maintainable and further demonstrates just how arbitrary physical activity guidelines can be.
Furthermore, the higher the intensity of the workout, the less time is required to see results. This is precisely why high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has received so much recent popularity. People see worthwhile results doing shorter workouts like Tabata or sprint intervals for 15 minutes on two to three days of the week. However, while this style of training offers a metabolic advantage, it is generally still a good idea to achieve some less structured movement in addition.
On the other hand, someone who is doing very light activities like steady-state walking, gardening, household chores, etc. will likely need closer to 60 to 120 minutes of movement a day to see effective results. Because the activity is less intense and not necessarily focused on building muscle mass, it necessitates more time to see similar metabolic and cellular results.
What About Diet?
No matter the effort, it is very difficult to exercise away a poor diet.
Someone can consistently work out for hours a day, but if they eat a poor diet, they can still be more unhealthy than someone who achieves 15-20 minutes of light activity per day but eats very nutrient-densely. Cells appreciate movement but thrive on healthful nutrients because it provides them direct fuel.
Someone may even technically be able to work out enough to balance overconsumption of energy intake (aka weight maintenance). However, eating a poor diet still negatively affects cells and therefore metabolism.
To complement exercise efforts, focus on consuming a nutrient-dense diet high in:
• Lean protein: to build and maintain lean muscle tissue
• Healthy fats: to build healthy cell membranes and balance hormones
• Fruit and veggies: to obtain plenty of antioxidants and polyphenols
• Whole grains: to get enough soluble fiber
While everyone wants a definitive answer to the quantitative qualms of exercise, there, unfortunately, is not one objective recommendation. Rather, how often and for how long one should workout is based on factors like work schedule, fitness goals, and health status.
To maintain minimum levels of health, one should follow the American Heart Association guidelines. For others with more specific goals, more or less might be appropriate but seeking advice from a doctor, personal trainer, or another health professional can be wise.
No matter the situation, some physical activity is warranted. But it is more important to find a form that is enjoyable and achievable, otherwise, it is bound not to last.
A little physical activity along with a nutrient-dense diet extends health a long way. Do this and the specifics become much more moot.
American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. American Heart Association. Reviewed April 18, 2018. www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults.