How Much Should You Exercise?

Fitness and Workouts

It’s a common question- how much exercise do I  need to do? Is it possible to get too much exercise?

The answer to these questions depends on two things:

1. What is your fitness goal/reason for exercising?

2. What is your current fitness level and what are you doing right now for exercise?

Let’s first talk about the MINIMUM physical activity guidelines. This is a document put out by CSEP (The Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologists) that tells us how much physical activity we need to be healthy across our lifespan (you can read the full guidelines here)

Basically, adults need at least 150 minutes per week of “cardiovascular” exercise (movement that gets our heart rate up). This benefits our hearts, brains, blood vessels, joints (essentially every system in the body). It will also reduce our risk of chronic disease as we get older.

The guidelines also state that we should include weight bearing exercises for improved strength and bone density at least 2 days per week (weight lifting for example, or activities like yoga or pilates)

This is the minimum amount of physical activity we need to be considered “healthy”. If you meet these recommendations then congratulations! The vast majority of Canadian adults and children fall short.

Estimates show that only 15% of Canadian adults are meeting the minimum physical activity guidelines. Even worse than that is that only a teeny 7% of Canadian children are getting enough exercise as well.

Find Your Reason

Will you lose weight if you stick to the minimum requirements? Maybe…. (more on that later)

But what if your goal isn’t just health? What if you are hoping with physical activity that you can change your body composition, lose some weight, and gain some serious muscle?

If you are currently completely sedentary (ie- you get almost ZERO physical activity per week), it is likely that making a change to meet these minimum requirements will result in some weight loss (because you will be increasing the number of calories you expend per day, and your body will be adjusting to the increased amount of movement) Some people may achieve and maintain a healthy body weight with this amount of activity as well (we’re all different!), but if you are already a regular exerciser, a 30-minute walk 5 days per week is not enough (time or intensity-wise) to see a change in weight. You need to give your muscles more of a challenge to increase strength and muscle size.

Change it Up

So let’s say for example that you are currently walking 5 days per week for an hour, and have been doing this much activity for the past year. You also attend a Yoga class twice per week. At this point your body has adapted to that amount of activity, and almost “expects it”. As with any exercise program, if you keep it the same for a long time, your body will adapt and you won’t burn as many calories as when you started. Your body gets much more efficient at completing that task. So if you’ve been lifting the same 5lb dumbbells and doing the same workout DVD for the past 10 years, this is probably the reason you aren’t seeing improvements in your strength. You might even be gaining weight despite your activity level being consistent.

We require regular changes to our activity in order to really see improvements in our strength and fitness.

We need to always push ourselves to get stronger and more fit. What some people end up doing (I see this all the time), is that rather than change WHAT you’re doing (ie. walking), you simply do more of it (increase that hour of walking to an hour and a half, or maybe two hours). Yes, at first you might see some weight loss, but you will inevitably reach a point where you simply cannot maintain that amount of exercise (the time commitment is huge), or you just plain get bored with it. My solution is to always look at WHAT type of exercise you are doing, and change the INTENSITY of that exercise to get the most bang for your buck (without having to quit your job just to be fit!)

SO, if we want to see changes in our weight, body composition, or reach a much higher fitness level, we can’t get stuck in a fitness rut. We need to try new things, run faster, lift heavier, and find ways to decrease the amount of time we spend sedentary each day (aka- sitting on our butts).

How Much is too Much?

This brings me to question number 2: Is it possible to get too much exercise?
The short answer to this is NO. Our bodies are machines that were made to move, and as long as we keep our machine fed, watered, and get enough sleep realistically we could be active most of our waking hours.

But there is a second part to that answer (we’ll call it the long answer) is that we can get too much INTENSE exercise, to the point where it may actually interfere with us reaching our fitness goals.

Let’s break it down…

When we participate in intense activity (sprinting, weight lifting, plyometrics), we are causing microtears in our muscle fibres. We are actually stressing and damaging our muscles when we overload them this way. It may sound like something we want to avoid, but it is actually a  good thing. After the damage has occurred, our bodies have to work to rebuild and repair that muscle (we refer to this as the recovery phase of exercise). Our bodies don’t just replace the muscle tissue, it actually rebuilds it BIGGER and STRONGER. Isn’t the human body amazing?! This process can take up to 72 hours (depending on a few factors like nutrition, rest, and how intense the workout was). Light exercise such as walking does not have this same effect. This is why we can walk for hours and hours every day without causing the same stress to our bodies.

The workout intensity piece is where I see some newer exercisers can get into trouble. It can also become an issue for experienced exercisers who get into a ‘more is better’ mindset. If HIIT (high intensity interval training) burns fat, then MORE HIT must burn MORE FAT!…right?

More is Better…Right?

Unfortunately, the opposite can be true. If each of your workouts is super intense, you are often working the same muscle groups, AND your recovery (ie nutrition plan and rest) is not adequate, you may not be getting full muscle recovery between workouts. This means that you might be working REALLY hard but you’re just not seeing any gains. You may also be unreasonably sore for many days at a time, and have more injuries to deal with. All of this increased stress on your body can also stall any fat loss you are hoping to see. So it is possible to do too much intense exercise. Taking it down a notch for a few of those workouts per week can make all the difference.

For every intense workout you participate in, you should do one equally light workout. For example, the day after a really intense lower body workout, do some walking or easy cycling, then complete an upper body workout. The day after that do a lighter lower body routine (maybe one that focuses on balance using only body weight exercises). After two or three days, do another heavier lower body workout.

If you are a highly trained individual, your body is adapted to handle more volume of work (for example twice per day training), but the same rules of hard/easy workouts apply. Exactly how light is light and how intense is intense? That all depends on your personal fitness level.

The Bottom Line

So, the bottom line is: For good health we  should all be active for at least 150 minutes per week. If you are currently not exercising then 150 minute per week is a GREAT starting point. You should also add in at least 2 days per week of a strength training activity.

If you want to take things to the next level with your fitness (for example weight loss or significantly increased muscle mass), then it is important to plan your workout schedule accordingly. Rather than focusing on the length of the workout (more time does not equal more results!) it is important to choose the RIGHT exercises in the RIGHT amounts at the RIGHT times. If you feel like you are working really hard, and not seeing the improvements you feel you deserve, an adjustment to your routine might be needed.

Need help planning the right fitness program for you? Book an appointment with me today!

Have questions? Feel free to comment below, or contact me directly.