Confused About How Often You Should Work Out? Here’s Help From a CPT
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If you’re new to exercise or have fallen off the wagon and are trying to find the motivation to hop back on, you may wonder how often you should work out. After all, knowing how much time and effort you need to commit to see results is crucial to planning your routine.
If you search for an answer, you’ll likely come across the CDC’s recommendations for the amount of exercise you should get each week (150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity plus at least two full-body strength training sessions). While that recommendation is well-meaning and backed by long-standing research, it might not be best for you. The CDC guidelines are a starting place for the general adult population, but they may need clarification.
As a certified personal trainer, I believe the answer to how often you should work out is individual. Now, before you click away, read my reasoning. While most people will do best with three to four planned workouts each week and adding as much functional and pleasurable movement outside of that as possible, there’s more to the picture. Let me explain.
Getting Active vs. Working Out
While this article is about how often you should work out, I think it’s wise to start by deciphering what actually constitutes working out versus getting active. When the CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, it doesn’t mean you must spend all those minutes slogging away on a cardio machine. It simply means spending that time (at a minimum) being physically active.
In fact, many people don’t realize that any activity that increases your heart rate to between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate is considered medium intensity. To get your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. You can achieve this heart rate range in many ways. Yes, you can jump on an exercise machine or attend a jazzercise class at your local gym, but you can also build this activity into your daily life.
It all adds up. For instance, you might achieve a few minutes of moderate activity every day from the following activities:
Taking the stairs
Running after a toddler
Carrying heavy groceries
Walking your dog up a steep hill
Dancing to oldies in your living room when no one’s watching
Performing intense weeding on an overgrown garden bed.
Throughout the day, these minutes add up. Since 150 minutes is just 30 minutes per day, five days per week, you might already meet these minimums without realizing it.
The strength training recommendation is a little different, but these sessions can be as short as 15–20 minutes twice per week. The CDC recommends training the large muscle groups of the body, including the arms, chest, shoulders, abs, legs, hips, and back. You can get that done with bodyweight exercises, cycling through the weight machines at the gym, performing compound exercises with dumbbells at home, taking a strength-focused group fitness class, or even through activities like rock climbing or surfing.
How Often to Work Out for Your Goals
Your goals will also help shape the recommendations for how often you should work out. For instance, if you want to lose weight, you may need to add more movement and planned exercise to your week. To build muscle, you may also need to add more resistance training to your current routine. Creating changes to your body (weight loss or muscle growth) requires progressing the challenge of your workouts over time.
Workout Frequency for Weight Loss
My typical recommendation for how often to work out for weight loss is three to four planned weekly exercise sessions if you’re a beginner. At least two days per week should include resistance training. Aside from that, it’s vital to be active throughout the day, taking regular breaks from sitting and trying to keep your overall step count up.
What’s crucial to understand is that working out every single day, doing intense exercise, and trying to add more and more hours of calorie burning to your routine is futile. It’s not sustainable, unlikely to be healthy, and might not even work.
To lose weight and keep it off, you need to create a slight calorie deficit that doesn’t cause you to become too hungry or depleted in energy. Less energy means less ability to recover from workouts; your body will also find ways to stop moving as much, whether you realize it or not.
You may stop fidgeting as much, and your digestion might slow down. You might start snacking on extra bits and that increases your calorie intake. Instead of focusing on exercise as a way to burn calories, work out often enough that you feel energized and happy, not as though you’re punishing your body into weight-loss submission. That should never be the intention of exercise.
My clients who lose weight and keep it off successfully are the ones that find ways of adding movement throughout their days — and truly enjoy what they’re doing. Physical activity can be pickleball, cycling, gardening, running, or martial arts. Find something you love and can do consistently.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, raising your activity level over time to include 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity may support weight loss. But remember, you can do this in any way you enjoy.
Workout Frequency for Building Muscle
Building muscle is more challenging than losing weight, but if you’re a beginner, you’ll likely see results faster and easier than someone who’s been at it for a while already. Known as “newbie gains,” those new to resistance training will likely be able to grow muscle by working out as little as two to three days per week.
My clients who are new to building muscle see fantastic muscle growth results after working out for two to three days a week before they need to add another training day to see more progress. I start them out on two to three sets for each exercise, working each muscle group a minimum of two times per week. We then add sets over the course of several weeks before doing a de-load and starting again.
Adding a third or fourth day to your strength training routine is wise if you need that volume to see results but don’t want to extend your workout duration. Simply add another day of training to split up the volume.
How to Make the Most of Your Workout Time
If you’re short on time and want to know how to fit in planned workouts, there are some ways beginners can make the most of their time.
Add Vigorous Activity
One thing to note is that the CDC provides an alternative to the 150 minutes per week rule. You can do a combination of moderate and vigorous activities throughout the week or just stick to vigorous exercise. When you perform a more vigorous-intensity activity, you can do less of it.
So, instead of 30 minutes of aerobic activity five days per week, you can do 75 minutes total of vigorous exercise, which is only 15 minutes per day, five days per week. Or, try a combo of moderate and vigorous, which is my preference. In this case, you can do a mix that adds up to an equivalent amount.
Ideas for vigorous activity include running, jogging, speed cycling, HIIT workouts, heavy lifting, circuit training, or speed laps in a swimming pool. You’ll also get vigorous activity when participating in recreational or competitive team sports like softball, dodgeball, soccer, pickleball, or tennis.
Perform Double Duty
One of the biggest roadblocks to fitting in workouts is the number of other responsibilities, such as child care, housework, work, and family time that fill the day. These things often rightly take priority, but you don’t have to sacrifice them to get in a good workout. Instead, try getting active with your loved ones or intentionally fit in time for movement throughout the day.
Here are some ideas:
Go for a family walk after dinner for 30 minutes. See if you can add some hills to your route.
Take the stairs in your building at work or the mall.
Use part of your lunch break to go for a walk, even if it’s just around the office or house.
Pace the room while you attend calls.
Take a family-oriented exercise class or plan a day at the swimming pool, tennis or basketball court.
Meet with friends or dates for coffee and a scenic walk instead of drinks and appetizers (not always, just sometimes!).
Use an under-the-desk treadmill or pedal exerciser.
Try circuit-based weight training for one of your exercise sessions to combine vigorous activity and strength training into one session.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Lastly, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for help with motivation, workout planning, exercise tips, and progress ideas. Personal trainers know all sorts of ways to help you reach your goals in minimal time. If you’re struggling to exercise consistently and need someone to hold you accountable, sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer.