The amount of time spent exercising per week is different for competing athletes and those just trying to maintain a healthy, post-sport lifestyle. Three hours of exercising 5-6 days per week isn’t realistic for people with full time jobs, and isn’t realistic for your body for the rest of your life.
I personally didn’t understand this until two years after I graduated. Until then I kept going in waves of exercising 2-3 hours per day until I exhausted myself, then would stop exercising all together until I gained 10-15 pounds, and the cycle would repeat itself. During my exercise kick, I would commute to and from work on my bicycle every day, but I didn’t think that was enough. I would also get up at 4:30 am to swim for at least an hour, shower, come home, change into my bicycle gear, and off I would go. I would get home by 7:00 pm and be in bed by 8:00 pm, and wonder why I was so tired. What was I doing, training for an Iron Man? Then, I would crash, eat more because I was unhappy with myself, and end up gaining weight and a bad self esteem.
In an attempt to learn more about how to be healthy and in an attempt to lose some pounds that I had gained after a non-exercise portion of my cycle, I joined the Jillian Michaels online program. I learned SO MUCH from her weekly newsletters (which ultimately inspired me to become a Health Coach and Personal Trainer myself), and one bit of advice that totally shocked me was how long to exercise to maximize calorie burn and muscle toning. Below mixes in her advice, my own experiences, and other research.
How Many Days Per Week
If you are trying to lose weight, intensity in your workout is key. Ideally three to five days per week, doing high intensity, circuit training mixes a couple reps of weight training with a burst of intense activity. For example, a set of tricep extensions, weighted crunches, followed by a minute of mountain climbers – repeat through twice, break for water, next circuit. Alternating short bursts of intense activity with short, slower period of recovery allow you to burn more calories in your workout. This is my favorite type of training for myself and my clients.
If you are sustaining your physique, of course it depends on your own body, schedule, and nutrition. What I’ve learned about myself is once I get to where I want to be, I have to switch up activities to keep myself interested, but still stay in a routine. For example, interval training two to three times per week, a yoga class another day, a bike ride or hike on the weekend, etc. I try to come up with new, fun ways to get exercise in, and do it with friends! It also helps to join an event, like a 5K or triathlon to motivate you towards a goal. It will take time to get to know your body to find a balance of what you are able to sustain and your own personal happiness. If you are a gym rat, then just make sure you don’t overdo it. If it is difficult to get yourself to the gym on your own, perhaps sign up with a trainer, join a class, and/or find a workout buddy who will help you commit you to showing up.
Another positive to switching up activities during the week is because the more you repeat the same exercise, the easier it becomes. Your metabolism learns and reacts so that your body burns fewer calories the more you repeat the same exercise.
How Long Per Workout
If you are doing high-intensity workouts, you shouldn’t log more than 60 minutes per session; or if you are doing low-intensity cardio, more than two hours per session. Any more time spent and your body doesn’t have a chance to recover.
As most athletes may know, resistance training creates small tears in the muscle fibers, and muscles need 24-48 hours to heal and repair themselves (which is of course why, in weight training, you are told to alternate arm and leg days). This healing process requires energy, which means you are burning more calories up to two days after your workout. To recharge after a high intense workout, spend your next session doing low to moderate cardio, such as jogging, swimming, or cycling.
The ACSM recommends that most adults engage in moderate-intensity cardio for 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week for a total of 150 minutes per week; or, vigorous-intensity cardio for 20 minutes, 3 days per week for a total of 75 minutes per week. Adults should also perform resistance exercises for each of the major muscle groups, and neuromotor exercise involving balance, agility, and coordination 2-3 days per week. To maintain joint range of movement, completing a series of flexibility exercises for each the major muscle-tendon groups (a total of 60 seconds per exercise) 2 days per week is recommended.
So guess what – you DON’T have to workout more than two hours per day, and it actually is recommended that unless you are training for a marathon or are currently competing in your sport, two hours is more than you should be doing. Shorter, more intense workouts give better results. Your body needs to replenish energy, convert lactic acid that’s produced during exercise into glucose, and restore blood hormone levels after an intense workout. That means your body works harder and burns more fat – both of which don’t happen during steady-state aerobics like running on a treadmill every day for 45 minutes.
In short, a scheduled workout three to four times per week between 60-120 minutes per session is a good regimen for someone not competing in a sport. Intense interval training for two to three of those sessions helps gain muscle strength and burn the most calories for your buck. Mixing in preferred cardio, balancing, stretching, and other activities of your choice to keep things interesting for one to two sessions per week is recommended to keep your body guessing and keep you interested.
The next step is to try different combinations of exercises to find out what works best for your body, health status, schedule, goals, and life balance.
I would love to hear what works for you! Feel free to leave a comment with your weekly workout routine.
Some interesting links:
How Many Calories You Are Burning Per Activity – Fitness Magazine
Understanding Cardio – Huffington Post
Jillian Michaels: Secrets of the Biggest Loser. (2009). Time. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1897204,00.html.
How Often Should You Exercise?. FitWatch. Retrieved October 5, 2014, from http://www.fitwatch.com/exercise/how-often-should-you-exercise-1356.html.
5 Reasons Running May Not Help You Lose Weight. (2013). Huffington Post. Retrieved October 5, 2014 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/14/running-weight-loss_n_4123911.html.
Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR, Franklin BA, Lamonte MJ, Lee IM, Nieman DC, Swain DP. “American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise.” (2011.) American College of Sports Medicine. Retrieved Dec. 30, 2014 from http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/21694556.