It's that time of year with Thanksgiving just over and Christmas approaching that many of us tend to cut back on our exercise routines in order to enjoy the holidays with family and friends. So how much and how often do you need to work out to improve your health and fitness? There's not a simple answer to that question but there are several guidelines to follow that have been found through research.
First of all, it's important to accept that when it comes to moving, something is always better than nothing. Every rep, set and second that you move will get you much closer to your goals. Many research studies, most recently an August 2019 review published in the British Medical Journal, have shown that any exercise comes with a lower risk of early death. Interestingly, researchers have noted that the dose-response relationship between exercise and longevity is non-linear, meaning that going from zero to 15 minutes of exercise per day is more beneficial than going from 60 to 75 minutes. Moreover, the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans edited its recommendation that physical activity occur in bouts of at least 10 minutes. Now, every single second of activity counts toward its weekly recommendation. That recommendation calls for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking), plus at least two days a week of total body strengthening activities. If activity is more intense, such as running or sprinting on a stationary bike, as little as 75 minutes may be enough. It's important to realize that these guidelines refer to the minimum amount necessary for good health, not to significantly improve fitness.
So how do you know how much your personal bare minimum is for improving fitness? That depends of several factors, including age, gender and genetics. For example, it takes less time and effort to make fitness gains when you're young, a time when your body has higher base levels of muscle, testosterone, growth hormone and bone mass. Fortunately for women, a 2011 study in the American Journal of Human Biology found that even though women have lower base levels of muscle mass, they are able to make similar percentage gains in muscle mass compared with men. In terms of genetics, it is true that some people can improve fitness faster and to a greater extent than others. Hopefully, you won that genetic lottery. It is also true that everyone has a genetic upper limit to their fitness potential. And the closer you are to that limit, the more challenging it is to continue making progress toward it.
In the first few months of a new training program, especially one focusing on strength development, you can expect to make big gains in strength quickly as your neuromuscular system learns how to execute the exercises more efficiently. It's also important to realize that during this time, despite increases in strength, muscle growth isn't as pronounced. After a couple of months though, further increases in strength are mainly due to muscle growth as the neuromuscular system adapts to your exercise routine.
Specifically, if you want to build muscle, as little as two 20 to 30 minute sessions may be enough to start to see some muscle definition. That means training each muscle group twice a week. If you want to maintain the muscle you already have, then once a week may be enough. To get the most out of each session, focus on large multi-joint movements such as squats, deadlifts, rows and push-ups rather than isolation exercises like biceps curls and leg extensions.
If your goal is to keep your heart healthy, lower blood pressure or cholesterol, then the federal guidelines' bare minimum may not be adequate. The American Heart Association recommends at least 40 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity three to four times a week. Before starting such a routine, it is important to check with your health care provider to make sure that it's safe to pursue this level of activity. The good news is that significant improvements in cardiovascular fitness can be expected relatively quickly, in the neighborhood of three to four weeks.
So as you contemplate your exercise routine during the holidays, keep in mind that what you do between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not as important as what you do between Christmas and Thanksgiving.