How often do I really need to work out to see improvements in my health—and in the mirror? It’s an age-old question for anyone beginning an exercise program. How much exercise is enough exercise? Unfortunately, there’s no cut-and-dried answer. Plus, since you’re an Aaptiv user, we know you realize there are no one-minute miracles or other quick fixes when it comes to your health.
The good news? There are general guidelines on how much exercise you should do for general fitness, even though your needs will vary depending on a number of individual factors. “How often you need to train depends on your genetics, age, recovery, and of course, nutrition,” explains Noam Tamir, founder of TS Fitness. And you know that quote about abs being made in the kitchen? It’s not that far off. “About 70% of your results can be attributed to your diet,” Tamir says. It’s also crucial to stay hydrated and get plenty of sleep, since muscles grow when you rest, he explains.
But if you’re looking for a baseline idea of how to structure your weekly workouts, we’ve got you covered. We asked two pros to weigh in how often you should do cardio, strength training, and stretching for optimal results. Read on to discover if you’re getting enough exercise.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that the average adult should fit in 150 minutes of cardio per week to “develop and maintain” cardiorespiratory fitness (in other words, to help your heart stay healthy). This evens out to about 30 minutes of moderate cardio exercise 5 days per week. Or to 20 to 60 minutes of more vigorous cardio exercise 3 days per week.
OK, this sounds doable, but what if you want to do more than just maintain your fitness? If you want to improve your fitness level or lose weight, you may need to step up the intensity of your cardio workouts. It also depends on how much weight you’re looking to lose, explains Jennifer Giamo, an Aaptiv trainer and founder of Trainers in Transit. That means your workout schedule may look a little different than a moderate 30 minutes, 5 days per week.
Does type of cardio make a difference?
“The type of exercise you’re doing may be more important than the duration,” Giamo says. In fact, more frequent but shorter, vigorous exercise sessions may be the way to go. “Studies have shown that short bouts of hard exercise [a.k.a. HIIT workouts] can cause improvements in fitness level similar (if not better) than a conventional, 45-minute workout.
Research also suggests improvements in endurance, blood pressure and muscle activity.” (Check out this article for more info on which type of cardio is best for weight loss.)
As for what kind of cardio is best for making changes in your body, it doesn’t matter which modality you prefer–running, swimming, or cycling–as long as you’re working hard enough. You’ll know you’ve hit the right pace if it’s difficult to carry on a conversation, Giamo says. It’s also a good idea to switch up your type of cardio. Different kinds work different muscle groups, Tamir explains. Running works your core more than cycling, for example, since you’re standing instead of sitting.
Finally, remember: If weight loss is your goal, it’s all about calories in versus calories out, Tamir says. “If you are burning more calories than you are taking in through food, then you will lose weight.” Just be sure you’re not lowering your caloric intake so much that it will slow down your metabolism.
The ACSM suggests training each major muscle group 2 to 3 times per week using a variety of exercises and equipment.
If you’re just starting to exercise, lifting weights a mere one time per week is a good starting point. Then, build up to 2-3 times per week. “Working out once a week has been shown to create a neural response of your body getting stronger. So training each body part 2 to 3 times per week will definitely create results,” explains Tamir.
He suggests structuring your strength workouts as three full-body workouts on alternate days. In other words, train Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and get your cardio in on the other days. At least one day (like Saturday or Sunday) should be your rest and recovery day. This is crucial as this is when your muscles actually grow, Tamir says.
Really gunning for improved muscle definition and strength? Tack on an extra day, so you’re training your whole body three to four times per week, Giamo says. But as she reminds us, “there are a lot of factors that come into play here, including genetics, body type, and gender. So it’s very subjective.”
As for the number of sets and reps, Giamo generally suggests 12-15 reps for two to three sets in typical total-body routines. But for more specific muscle development, “sometimes we work the muscle to total fatigue in just one set,” she says. (Or, to take out all the guesswork, just pick an Aaptiv strength workout of your choice and hit play!)
To improve your range of motion, the ACSM suggests stretching your major muscle groups two to three days per week. The recommendation says to hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds to the point of tightness or discomfort, working up to 60 seconds per stretch and repeating each stretch two to four times.
Three days per week is a good amount of stretching to aim for, Giamo says. However, instead of holding a static stretch (think toe touches), both experts prefer dynamic stretches (like walking lunges, butt kicks, high knees, or hip circles). These stretches allow your muscles to move in a functional range of motion. And they take a joint-by-joint approach to address the ankles, hips, thoracic spine, shoulders, and neck, Tamir explains.
Science seems to agree, as research shows that dynamic stretches have better results than static stretches in terms of improving performance and avoiding injury. Some studies even suggest that static stretches can have a negative effect on performance and should be avoided completely.
Also, keep in mind you should never stretch out cold muscles, Giamo says. Warm up with 10 to 15 minutes of cardio and then stretch, or even save it until after your workout.
Finally, if you’re into yoga or pilates, you’re already on the right path—they’re two of the best ways to improve flexibility, Giamo says. Aim to hit the mat a minimum of three times per week.