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How Much Exercise Do You Really Need?

Putting the Exercise Guidelines to the Test

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Updated April 18, 2014

Experts are good about giving us exercise advice. The Department of health regularly updates physical activity guidelines telling us just how much exercise we need to improve our health, lose weight and more. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports has chimed in with its own guidelines. Even personal trainers, like me, offer the basics of how to exercise and you'll notice that most of these guidelines look about the same: Cardio about 3-5 days a week and strength training about 2 times a week.

These guidelines are helpful, but often vague, leaving you wondering: How much exercise do I really need to lose weight?

Exercise That Works for You

What many of us want when we go on a search for exercise advice is specifics. We want to know what activities to do and for how long, how hard to work and how to do the exercises. We want someone to say, "Here's the workout schedule you need to get exactly where you want to go." While plenty of experts will tell you they have the answer, the truth is, no one workout schedule will fit your exact needs.

So how do you figure out how much exercise you need? One place to start is with your goals. To help you out, I've broken down the guidelines for the three most common goals: better health, prevention of weight gain and weight loss. The sample workouts and schedules included will help you make exercise a reality.

Guidelines for Your Health

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, published by the Department of Health recommend:

Do moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week
Or
Do vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week
And
Do 8 to 10 strength-training exercises, 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise twice a week.

Make It a Reality

The following examples show how you can schedule your workouts to meet the guidelines:

Just Getting Started

This workout schedule is a good choice of you're a beginner and aren't quite ready for 5 days of cardio:

Mix and Match

This series takes things a bit further with more workouts and more intensity:

Guidelines to Prevent Weight Gain

While there aren't official guidelines for preventing weight gain, the ACSM's position stand on the subject suggests moderate-intensity workouts between 150-250 minutes (20-35 minutes daily) or about 1200 to 2000 kcal a week may help you maintain your weight.

To see what this looks like in real life, check out the sample schedule below, which predicts calories burned for a 150-lb person:

Weight Gain Prevention Series

This exercise program includes a variety of cardio activities, all done at a moderate pace along with a simple strength and yoga workout, for a complete and balanced program:

  • Monday: Elliptical Trainer, 40 min at a moderate pace, 327 calories, 10 minute stretching, 40 calories
  • Tuesday: Basic Total Body, 30 min, 100 calories
  • Wednesday: Walking, 45 min at 4.5 mph, 322 calories, 10 minute stretching, 40 calories
  • Thursday: Basic Total Body, 30 min, 100 calories
  • Friday: Swimming laps, 20 min, 137 calories
  • Saturday: Yoga class, 60 min, 170 calories
Total Time: 245 Minutes
Estimated Calories Burned: 1236

Guidelines to Lose Weight

Now we get to the nitty-gritty, the amount of exercise you need to lose weight. You can see that it takes quite a bit of exercise just to prevent weight gain, and it takes even more to actually lose weight. For this goal, the ACSM recommends 200-300 minutes each week of moderate-intensity exercise. Keep in mind, though, that working harder for some workouts will give you more bang for your buck. To see it in action, the sample routine below shows how a 150-lb exerciser fits in 300 minutes of exercise a week:

Weight Loss Series

Total Time: 315 Minutes
Estimated Calories Burned: 2112

Making Sense of It All

If you're a beginner trying to lose weight, you may be put off by the amount of exercise you have to do. The good news is, you don't have to start at that level. In fact, a great way to approach it is to start with a focus on improving your health. Those workouts are perfect for beginners and allow you to build a strong foundation of strength before you move up to the more strenuous routines required for maintaining and losing weight. Start with what you can handle and use the guidelines as just that: Guidance to set up a program that works for you.

Sources:

ACSM and AHA. "Physical Activity and Public Health Guidelines." ACSM. Accessed Jan 5, 2010.

Jakicic JM, Clark K, Coleman E, et al. American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Appropriate intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Dec;33(12):2145-56.

President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.Fitness Fundamentals: Guidelines for Personal Exercise Programs. www.fitness.gov. Accessed Jan 4, 2010.

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