It is not unusual for a new personal fitness training client to ask, sincerely and with some trepidation, “How often should I come in to train?” The other side of this question, actually just one of the other sides to it, is, “How much exercise do I have to do to accomplish my stated goal(s)?”
The third side, of course, is, “How much money do I have to spend in order to achieve my goals?” On that question, I give my pat answer: twice a week with a trainer and 2-3 times a week on your own, or once a week with a trainer and 3-4 times a week on you own. Few like the total number of preferred sessions regardless of where and how but I qualify it by allotting more specific guidelines and suggestions as to how to achieve them….and why.
[Parenthetically, the ‘why’ is where I usually gain their trust. You do understand, as the reference article will highlight, almost all national and international government and health organization guidelines recommend doing at least 150 minutes a week spread out over a near-daily bout of activity.
So when I recommend multiple sessions, the goal is to get people to engage in near-daily activity totaling 150 mins/wk or more.
But I usually only recommend twice a week with a personal trainer as a way to guide and motivate, and keep accountable, during the early stages of lifestyle change. This way, even if life gets in the way, assuming they attend both sessions, at least they are getting the minimum of resistance training with a variable trace of cardiovascular training, during those two sessions. But it allows face time with them to help them stay motivated and guide them as they navigate new behaviors.]
Going back to the side of the question pertaining to how much do they need to do in general, I explain that there are a few variables I have to consider before declaring my hand.
If weight loss is the goal, then most research recommends a minimum of 150 minutes/wk although 300 is ideal. This is about 43 minuted/day! Since most won’t, especially if they are overweight and basically sedentary, we shoot for some amount of reasonably-attainable activity on a regular basis, daily or weekly.
You see, if they work evenings, their ability to engage in morning or late afternoon workouts may be impaired by the exigencies of raising a family, weather, etc. Or maybe they have joint issues that prevent long bouts of exercise and are not inclined or have access to use a pool. Ultimately, just getting an overweight person to engage in ANY physical activity is an accomplishment beyond reproach. Anyway, you get the picture: each person brings his or her own issues and agendas to the training table and it’s my job to navigate them while not scaring them off entirely.
So let’s get back to the question at hand: how much exercise do you need?
The article in the on-line version of Discover is titled just that: How much exercise does a body need? It kindly and gently lays out a strong argument based on several studies that attempt to answer this question, starting with very little though very intense to a whole lot and quite often.
Then I re-read an article from March 2016 in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (MSSE: 48(3), pg. 481-490) that attempted to answer this question for adolescents using variable amounts of high intensity interval training, or HIIT. I have written about HIIT elsewhere here and here and here and here, but most studies have been done on adults, not kids. They had 5 groups of teenagers do either 1 set of four Tabata drills (20 seconds hard (about 90-100% of max ability) with 10 seconds of rest, or 2 sets or 3 sets or 4 sets or 5 sets. They compared their baseline anthropometric and vital stats to their data at the end of the 8-week study, both against themselves and against the means of the other groups.
Let’s break this down for you: 4 Tabata drills, of their own choosing – a cycle, rower, shadow boxing drills, elliptical or running – takes only 2/TWO minutes!!!! So some of the kids only did a 3 minute warm up and cool down with 2 minutes of hard exercise while others did the same warm up and cool down with either 4, 6, 8 or 10 minutes of hard effort. (Those doing multiple sets had a few minutes between them to recover.)
Believe it or not, the 1 set/2 minutes group did almost as well as the other groups in all the variables and yet, except for some of the targets, statistically speaking there just wasn’t that much difference between any of the groups!
Body fat, BMI, blood pressures, etc – all groups got just about as much effort although the 4 and 5 set trainees did do slightly better on some variables, as you might expect. But not much better.
Which, when you read the Discover article, you will note that there often are not big differences between groups…until you get to the more extreme participants. That is, when you start getting near 45-60 minutes of exercise each day, you are going to start seeing major results.
Now this could be disheartening to you. Don’t let it. Go back a few paragraphs, add a few other variables to consider like age, state of health, states of diseases, etc. and you will note that getting the right amount of exercise FOR YOU is all that really matters. Studies show that incremental participation levels of 10-15 minutes do add value but at diminishing returns. All depends on your goals, needs and abilities, and many factor contribute to those.
So, here’s my bottom line: I am a personal fitness trainer who owns a personal training center or studio. As much as I could benefit from your frequent attendance, and am very happy when you do come often and regularly, I sill only encourage you to exercise twice a week with supervision at a minimum and that you do 2-3 times a week on your own. This is not because I want to make less money. It’s because you have a life to live and need to find a way to make physical activity a part of your life, not mine.
And like many things in life, the more you invest in your physically active lifestyle, the more benefits you will accrue.