Hopefully, you know by now that magic weight loss supplements or “six-days-to-a-six-pack” plans don’t actually work. But even if you rationally realize that seeing changes in your body takes time, you might still wonder how much time, exactly, you need to put in at the gym, on the bike, or in the yoga studio.
Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut answer. Instead, the amount of time you should spend working out depends on your personal fitness goals, explains Joseph Foley, strength training coach and founder of Punch Pedal House. For instance: Are you training to race your first 5K, or an Ironman? Are you looking to lose weight? Or are you simply in need of stress relief?
Although your answer depends greatly on your individual needs, the good news is there are some helpful guidelines to follow. Keep reading to find out how much you should be working out for your specific goals.
Your Goal: Weight Loss
In order to lose weight at a healthy (and realistic) rate of one to two pounds per week, you need to burn, on average, 500 to 1000 more calories than you consume each day, explains Shayna Schmidt, certified personal trainer and co-founder of Livekick.com.
Essentially, this equates to about three hours (150 to 200 minutes) of fairly rigorous exercise each week. The way you break it down is up to you, Schmidt says: Do six 30-minute sessions per week, or three 1-hour sessions—it’s your call.
Plus, note that it’s not so much about the quantity of exercise, but more about the quality. “In terms of working out for weight loss, there is no such thing as ‘long enough,'” Schmidt notes. “The question is: Did you work hard? Did you reach breathlessness during at least one of your workouts this week? Was your heart rate elevated? These are the important questions.”
In terms of types of workouts? “If you’re looking to lose weight, cardio is a must,” Schmidt says. Switch up your routine with a mix of running, swimming, rowing, and biking if you dread long hours on the elliptical. But cardio also doesn’t have to mean long hours on a machine. It can also include high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which is weight loss’s best friend.
“All HIIT means is that you basically perform the same moves you already do, but you alternate your pace and intensity,” Schmidt explains. “Studies point to interval training as more effective for weight loss than longer and slower endurance cardio. This is mainly due to the fact that the intense effort you put in means that your body must work harder to recover, so you’ll burn more calories in the 24 hours after an interval workout than you would after a slow, steady run.”
Strength training should also make up some of your weekly workout sessions. “Lifting weights may burn less calories by default than cardio, but it’s also massively effective for weight loss,” Schmidt notes. “The more muscle you have, the more calories your body will naturally burn when at rest.”
Finally, it’s key to incorporate some flexibility training into your workout routine. “Hot yoga is a great option if you are trying to lose weight,” Schmidt says. “Most sessions can be between 30 minutes to an hour, which is a perfect way to get one of your weekly workouts in.”
Diet and age also play a large factor in weight loss. If you’re working out consistently but your diet is unhealthy, you’re not going to see the results you’re hoping for. Additionally, as we age, our metabolism slows down and hormones fluctuate, making it easier to put on weight. If you’re seeing a weight increase and/or not seeing a change in your body, you may want to speak with your doctor to determine your best course of action.
Your Goal: Strength Gains
“If you’re looking to gain strength, you should definitely be getting in at least a solid five days of heavy lifting each week—30-60 minutes each day,” Schmidt suggests. It’s also important to make sure you’re fueling properly after a lifting session. While lifting, you’re actually creating micro-tears in your muscle and it’s mainly sleep and food (protein, specifically) that actually help the muscle repair, and come back stronger than it was before.
When you’re trying to pack on muscle, do cardio sparingly. The reasons: Ultimately, it will burn the calories you want to be putting towards muscle, Schmidt explains. A good way to incorporate cardio, though, would be sprinting because it can help build muscle in your legs.
And on that note, when building muscle, you may need to increase your caloric intake in order to replenish what you burn during your workout and fuel your muscles properly to allow them to grow
Finally, flexibility is important here as well, as an injury will put you out of commission for a period of time. Flexibility and mobility training are ways to ensure an injury doesn’t happen. Fit in at least 30 minutes to an hour of flexibility per week. Yoga workouts, Pilates and/or barre exercises, and stretching before and after your lifting sessions are good ways to protect your growing muscles from injury.
Your Goal: General Health Maintenance
To maintain your current weight and overall health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests doing 150 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity per week (or two and a half hours).
Again, how you break up these 150 minutes is up to you, whether it’s five 30-minute sessions per week, or two hour-long sessions plus one 30-minute session. “Since you’re likely not focusing on one specific body part with a maintenance goal, you can stick to more total-body workouts on strength training days,” Schmidt adds. Note that even if your goal is maintenance, it is always good to incorporate a cross training day (think yoga or low-intensity cardio) to keep your body from getting used to a specific workout, Schmidt says.
Finally, keep in mind that your daily workout sessions don’t grant you permission to turn into a couch potato at all other times. “Most of us have jobs that force us to be quite sedentary, and it’s crucial that we incorporate regular movement into our lives to prevent injuries and encourage proper movement patterns,” Schmidt reminds us.