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Some people spend hours at the gym several times a week, while others barely have the time and energy to fit in one session. But both types of gym-goers can be equally frustrated by not seeing results. So what’s the ultimate sweet spot when it comes to how often a person should work out?
The answer to that depends on different factors, such as the physical activity you choose to do. Physical activity is defined as “any bodily movement produced by the contraction of skeletal muscle that increases energy expenditure above a basal level,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Exercise is a “planned, structured, repetitive” form of physical activity that’s performed with the goal of improving health or fitness.
“Although all exercise is physical activity, not all physical activity is exercise,” the department explains.
Of course some physical activity is better than none but “regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity” reduces the risk of many adverse health outcomes, the HHS says.
How Many Days a Week Do I Need to Workout?
How often a person should work out will depend on the fitness level of the individual as well as their fitness goals, from losing weight to building muscle.
It’s good to aim for at least 30 minutes of “moderate physical activity every day,” according to the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Edward Laskowski, who is certified by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
For those who don’t have time, even “brief bouts of activity” offers health benefits. So, you can swap a 30-minute walk during the day with several five-minute walks instead, he says.
However, “if you want to lose weight, maintain weight loss or meet specific fitness goals, you may need to exercise more,” Laskowski says.
Speaking to Newsweek, Gregg Hartley, a consultant to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) and an IFBB Pro (International Federation of Bodybuilders) with an extensive background in sports and fitness, advised that “to make significant changes you should spend at least three days a week in the gym in a structured workout.”
Be sure to learn how to do the exercises in the correct manner and focus on doing them correctly. “It is disheartening [seeing] the number of people working out with incorrect form who achieve no gains and in the worst case injure themselves,” he says.
For three other days during the week, you should do some type of “unstructured activity,” the SFIA consultant says. This could mean going for a run, taking the stairs rather than the elevator up a building, walking to work—anything to get your heart rate elevated for around 20 or 30 minutes.
Give your body a rest on one day of the week to “relax and enjoy the progress you made during the week.” But be careful not to “binge eat” or drink on your rest day, Hartley warns (more on diet later below).
Consistency is also key for seeing results. “Be consistent, you can’t workout for a week and then take a week off and expect to show any gains. Consistency is the basis all improvements are driven by,” he says.
What’s a Healthy Amount of Physical Activity?
One of the main types of physical activity is aerobic activity, which entails the body’s large muscles moving in a rhythmic manner for a sustained period of time. Ideally, your aerobic activity should be spread out across the week, the HHS says.
Aerobic activity level is determined by three components. They include intensity (how hard you work to do the activity), frequency (how often you do the aerobic activity) and duration (how long you do the activity in any one session).
The HHS explains: “Although these components make up an aerobic physical activity profile, research has shown that the total amount of physical activity (minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity in a week, for example) is more important for achieving health benefits than is any one component (frequency, intensity, or duration).”
Some health benefits can begin with as little as one hour of physical activity a week. However, “substantial health benefits” for adults occur with a weekly total of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking).
According to research, a weekly minimum total of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity “consistently reduces” the risk of many chronic diseases and other adverse health outcomes, the HHS says.
Adults who do muscle-strengthening activities of “moderate or greater intensity” that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week will reap additional health benefits, the federal health body says.
How Long Should My Workout Be?
When it comes to exercise, you shouldn’t need to work out for more than about an hour, according to Hartley.
“Workout sessions can vary in length, but if you are in the gym for more than an hour you are messing about or talking too much. Plan your workout and get it done,” the SFIA consultant says, adding you should leave the phone in your locker or gym bag to help focus on the workout.
Hartley advises working out at the same designated time during the day. “Trying to spread a workout over three or four shorter periods during the day does not give your body the challenge it needs,” he says.
You should also “step it up a level” if you do not feel tired or challenged by your current workout.
Hartley explains you should feel soreness in a muscle group on the second day after you work it. This would mean if you exercise your legs on Monday, they should feel tight or sore on Wednesday. If they don’t, you didn’t push your body hard enough.
The HHS says: “For most health outcomes, additional benefits occur as the amount of physical activity increases through higher intensity, greater frequency, and/or longer duration.”
How Long Before I See Significant Results?
Hartley says: “If you develop a competent training and diet program and are consistent about following it you should see significant results in three to six months.
“You didn’t get twenty pounds overweight or lose muscle strength in a few weeks and you won’t be magazine cover ready in a few weeks. But you will get there if you are consistent,” he adds.
Diet Is Crucial for Working Out
Proper nutrition and working out go hand-in-hand. Your diet is the “most critical” aspect of a workout program to lose weight and gain muscle.
Hartley explains: “The single largest fallacy in working out to lose weight is getting on a fad diet that promises miracle results. The bottom line is to lose weight you have to burn more calories on a daily basis than you eat. Simple as that.”
The SFIA consultant also warns you must not try to workout with only one meal a day. Our bodies were not designed to work in that way, he says, noting that every extra pound of weight on your body adds five pounds of pressure to your knees.
“Maintaining your diet and your weight is critical for a healthier lifestyle. It makes no sense to maintain your diet for the week and then binge on your day off or your vacation,” Hartley adds.
He strongly recommends seeing a nutritionist or consulting with a well-qualified personal trainer to help set a diet that meets your workout goals.
Before Starting a Workout Program
Hartley says you should consult with your doctor or a qualified medical professional to ensure you’re capable of sustaining a fitness program.
This is especially important if you have never done a fitness program or worked out in a gym. In either case, have an initial consultation with a qualified personal trainer. “They can evaluate your physical condition, understand your goals and help you set a workout program you can maintain and grow with,” Hartley says.
If costs are keeping you from embarking on a fitness journey, Hartley suggests seeking assistance via programs similar to PHIT (Personal Health Investment Today Act), which “is working its way through the U.S Congress” and will “underwrite the cost of many sports and fitness programs.”
You should also check the terms of your health insurance provider, the SFIA consultant says, adding: “Mine pays for my entire gym membership.”