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“How often should I exercise?”

It seems like such a simple question, but the answer is far more complex than we might assume. When clients ask me this, they’re often frustrated by my response of “it depends.” Given that exercise is such a key component to health, a basic formula would be convenient, but this is a topic — like many others in the health space — where individualization is essential.

Recommended exercise frequency can vary based on everything from someone’s particular goal to their various health conditions or even their other lifestyle behaviors. The best routine correlates with a full, composite picture — not a single consideration.

To give you an idea of the number of elements that can influence an ideal training schedule, here are just some of the factors I’m thinking about when I sit down with clients to design a personalized fitness plan.

  • Ultimate health and/or fitness goal
  • Daily diet
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Sleep quality and duration
  • Stress level
  • Training age (how long you’ve been consistently exercising)
  • Muscular imbalances or impingements
  • Existing health conditions
  • Supplementation routine
  • Type of exercise you prefer
  • Length of current workouts
  • Present workout efficiency
  • Volume of exercise you’re doing now
  • Current workout consistency

However, to offer some direction beyond just “it depends,” below is a look at three of the most common scenarios I see from clients who are looking to embark on an exercise regimen, along with guidance geared toward each. See which one(s) you identify with. My hope is you’ll be able to gather some insights you can apply to your personal situation.

“I want to exercise so I can eat my favorite foods.”

Early in my career, I struggled with this question because it seemed so counterintuitive. As I continued to educate myself and evolve as a professional, however, I began to understand where this question stems from.

Humans are naturally wired to avoid pain — and some people associate exercise with pain, whether from soreness, muscular imbalances, poor form, or heavy exertion. We’re also wired to seek calorie-dense food (particularly sugar and fat) in order to avoid starvation. If, in general, we are physiologically inclined to resist pain and overindulge, a goal to “work off” commonly indulgent foods sets us up for failure. Most people will not work out anywhere near the point they’d need to in order to burn off the extra calories from those foods.

The other problem with this thinking is that calorie balance isn’t the solution most people think it is. All too often these “favorite” foods (and the artificial ingredients they contain) cause more metabolic damage than just calorie count.

What I’d advise:

First and foremost, if you’re trying to out-exercise bad nutrition habits, you will lose. I know, it’s not the answer you want to hear, but it is true. I try to challenge my clients to reframe their outlook on exercise and nutrition. We work on the 80/20 rule: Make positive choices 80 percent of the time and leave 20 percent for some flexibility.

Some people might get away with 70/30 and some may need to maintain a 95/5, but most of the time, we focus on 80/20. For example, I urge people to get moderate- to high-intensity exercise most days of the week (meaning four to five days). At 80 percent, that translates to three or four solid days of exercise per week. For nutrition, the average person eats about 21 meals per week, which at 80 percent looks like 17 great meals per week and three or four that aren’t quite on their plan.

By no means am I saying that simply showing up at the gym three days per week will change your physique, and I’m definitely not recommending that you go hog wild during those few off-plan meals each week. The core message I try to instill is this: Approaching your food and exercise with a perfectionist mentality will almost invariably result in eventually “falling off the wagon.” View your commitment as a long-term plan (it’s a marathon, not a sprint!), do the best you can, and don’t beat yourself up if you miss a workout here and there or enjoy a few meal choices that don’t hit your healthy target. The mental stress often acquired by overanalyzing these choices can cause just as much harm to your health (and metabolism) as actually consuming the unhealthy foods or missing a gym visit.

“I really don’t like to exercise but I still want to get results.”

Again, it’s important to remember that we’re naturally wired to avoid pain, and for many people, exercise is associated with pain. In order to boost results with as infrequent of an experience of “pain” as possible, there’s a hierarchy of importance when it comes to exercise. The focus here is to maximize calorie burn and increase metabolic rate during and after the workout.

What I’d advise:

Personal and professional experience shows me that three days of high-quality exercise tends to offer proven results for individuals who are looking to optimize their time at the club. The type of exercise I emphasize is metabolic resistance training, which I define as moderate-to-heavy weight loads using multi-joint exercises that are completed in a compound or circuit fashion with little rest in between exercises. This approach can vary from traditional weightlifting to strongman training to Alpha training, with the goal being a maximum return on your time investment.

Here’s an example of how that plan could look for you in a week:

Monday: Total-Body Strength Training: Perform three rounds per circuit, 10 reps per exercise, and rest one minute between sets and circuits.

  • Circuit 1: Dumbbell row, dumbbell bench, single-leg squat
  • Circuit 2: Incline bench, lat pulldown, walking lunges
  • Circuit 3: Weighted step-ups, dumbbell shoulder press, weighted hip bridge

Wednesday: Total-Body Strongman Training: Perform three rounds per circuit, 30 seconds per exercise, and rest two minutes between sets and circuits.

  • Circuit 1: Tire flips, farmer carry
  • Circuit 2: Sled drag, sledgehammer swings
  • Circuit 3: Car push, rope “tug of war”

Friday: Total-Body Alpha Training: Perform each circuit for three rounds consecutively and rest three minutes between circuits.

“I’ve reached a plateau and can’t lose any more weight.”

This is a question I frequently encounter. Our bodies tend to gravitate toward the path of least resistance. They are fantastic at adapting over time to our current workouts and getting just efficient enough to be able to handle any added load. When our bodies adapt, our celebrated gains plateau, and frustration sets in. If we don’t continuously adjust overload variables, our bodies see no need to change.

What I’d advise:

In order to keep progressing, you need to keep adding overload strategies to your workouts, which will force your body to make adaptations. Our bodies can adapt in as few as one to six workouts, and all too often we do the EXACT same workout over and over for weeks, months, or even years. To prevent plateaus, be sure to adjust or mix up your workouts on a regular basis.

Here are some simple overload strategies you can add to your current workout regimen to break through plateaus:

Lower your reps: Different rep schemes produce different results. The most common rep scheme I see when I walk around the club is 10 to 15 reps per exercise. By increasing the intensity and amount of weight used and decreasing the reps, you’ll push your body to become stronger.

Increase your sets: Most members I see rarely do more than two or three sets per exercise. The amount of sets to aim for depends on the intensity and complexity of the exercise. In general, the more difficult it is to perform the exercise, the more sets you should devote to it. For example, if you’re performing squats, try eight sets of three reps, resting three minutes between sets.

Adjust your tempo: Rarely do I see someone leveraging tempo during their workout. Tempo is the rate at which you move weight during any given repetition. Slow down the eccentric portion of the lift by lowering the weight for a four-second count. For example, on a bench press, take four seconds to lower the bar down to your chest.

Decrease your rest periods: Rest periods are important, but those that allow for a full conversation are most likely wasting your time. By shortening your rest periods, you’ll get more work done and elevate your metabolic rate during and after exercise. Use your heart-rate monitor and clock your rest period. Aim for 60 seconds or less between exercises.

Add high-intensity interval sprints: Sprints can be difficult, which means few people leverage them in their programs. However, high-intensity sprints will get most people the biggest metabolic return on their time investment. (Talk to a fitness professional for personalized guidance here, particularly if you’re under stress or have a health condition.) After a good warm up, a full sprint workout can last as little as 15 to 20 minutes and push you beyond a plateau. For example, do 20 seconds of maximum-capacity sprinting followed by 40 seconds of rest. Repeat 15 times.

Work with an expert: At your club you have fitness professionals who devote their careers to understanding all of the variables that go into a successful health and exercise plan and how to implement them appropriately with their individual clients. If you’re feeling stuck, frustrated, or overly fatigued by your current routine, reach out and ask for help.

Putting it All Together

Maximize your efforts by eating well, getting good sleep, exercising efficiently, and adjusting your fitness continually to prevent plateaus. Always look to incorporate new fitness strategies to progress your program and to keep yourself engaged. Seek out support for your journey from a fitness professional who can help you design a program that’s optimum for your personal objectives and considerations. Most importantly, stay consistent in your efforts — whatever your ultimate goal is!

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Cliff Edberg, RD, CPT

Cliff Edberg, RD, CPT is a licensed dietitian and personal trainer who has worked in the health and fitness industry for more than 15 years. Edberg has been at Life Time for 11 of those years, helping Life Time trainers further support their clients.

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