If you’re reading this, chances are you’re someone who dedicates 30 minutes a day (or most days) to working out. Whether you’re lifting weights, training for a race, or otherwise getting active, you strive to fit in a 30 minute workout, no questions asked. In fact, to you, anything less feels like a waste a time. Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
A lot of active people feel this way. But should the standard length of a TV show also be the standard length of your workout? Where did the magic 30 minute workout mark come from? Could it be too much, or possibly even too little?
To get answers to these and other questions, we spoke with Meghan Burris, Physical Therapist and pilates enthusiast at Evolve Physical Therapy + Advanced Wellness in San Diego. Here, we set the record straight on the ubiquitous 30 minute workout.
Why 30 Minutes?
First thing’s first: Where does the half hour target time come from? “I think one of the places the 30 minute workout standard comes from is the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM),” says Burris. “The ACSM recommends that each person get 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise each week. Broken down into 5 days, [this] means 30 minutes of cardio exercise each session.”
Alternatively, the ACSM recommends 20 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise daily for three days a week. So an intense fitness devotee, may not need to clock in as much time (more on that in a bit). This falls in line with the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which considers these amounts of time not only good, but necessary in order to gain substantial health benefits. We’re talking better sleep, a boost in energy, and a positive impact on your mood.
What about workouts that don’t include cardio? The ACSM also advises resistance and flexibility exercises two to three days a week, with an emphasis on major muscle groups. “So all put together, with the cardio, resistance, and stretching, it seems like the “ideal” gym session should be 45-60 minutes,” she says.
“As physical therapists, we like the idea of well-rounded fitness. It’s important to do a variety of cardio and resistance exercises to keep the muscles from adapting to certain movements and to keep making progress. This is also how you prevent injuries.”
Can you dedicate 30 minutes a day to each form of exercise on different days?
Basically, what if you dedicate certain days to certain forms of exercise, rather than doing it all in one go? Will 30 minutes of cardio one day and 30 minutes of strength training the next do the trick?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. While generally speaking, 30 minutes a day five days a week is the advised amount, there are a few variables that can have an effect on these numbers.
Different exercises will bring your body to different levels of intensity. So, the harder you push yourself, the shorter your workout needs to be. For instance, if you plan to do steady state cardio for your daily workout, 30 minutes is a good timeframe. On the other hand, if you’ve decided to blast through a shorter, more advanced run (à la “Strong-Willed Sprinter”), a shorter workout time can be just as beneficial.
The latter is going to get your heart going at a faster rate, so shorter sessions are totally fine. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out that one minute of vigorous activity is about the same as two minutes of moderate activity. Something to keep in mind.
It’s also worth noting that the higher the intensity, the better the after-burn. This means that vigorous exercise will keep your body burning calories for hours after your workout, no extra work required. Even an intense 10 to 15 minute burst of activity can be effective.
If you’re simply trying to lead a healthy, active life, a 30 minute workout five times a week is great. But, if you’re attempting to lose weight, gain muscle, or increase your endurance, you should consider taking your workouts up to the 60 minute mark. This doesn’t always need to be the case (remember what we just said about intensity?), but it’s highly recommended if you’re working towards a more challenging goal.
If weight and fat loss is your goal, you may need to put in enough time and intensity to burn the necessary calories. That could mean taking your walk to a run. Or switching your workout up with some HIIT, hills, or speed work. That said, keep in mind that the commonly held belief that the body begins to burn fat after 30 minutes, is, in fact, a myth.
It’s all about that intensity mentioned earlier. Expect slower progress if you’re putting in those 30 minutes, but are operating at a consistently low intensity. Alternatively, if you’re regularly working hard for more than 30 minutes, expect quicker results.
Of course, health plays a big role in the workout time equation. While 30 minutes of moderate exercise should be enough to maintain a healthy weight, that’s only if you’re eating right for your body.
It’s important to balance your eating habits with your exercise habits. That’s certainly not to say you should be focused on burning off every calorie you eat. A cheat day here and there won’t set you down the path of dangerous weight gain or health issues. But if you find yourself going overboard more regularly, first of all, talk to a doctor about what might be causing you to overeat or eat more unhealthy. Then, remember balance. And add intensity or time to your workouts as you see fit.
All things considered, a 30 minute workout is good for you no matter what. But don’t make that the gold standard for all your workouts. Your ideal workout length depends on everything from your schedule, your goals, and your fitness level. You need to strike the right balance between intensity and time. But in the end, anything is better than nothing.