How much should I workout?

Last week, I asked on my Facebook if people had any fitness questions for me and the one that came back was:

“How much should I workout?”

A quick Google search will give you the guidelines per ASCM, who sets the gold standard for fitness recommendations that are backed by science, but I thought it would be worthwhile to translate what they had to say in plain English.

*Note, these are the general guidelines, so they apply both fitness newbies and veterans.)

For starters, there are lots of ways to train and we want to incorporate a variety. ASCM breaks down their exercise recommendations into 4 categories – cardio, resistance, flexibility and functional training.

Now if reading that last sentence made you go, “Whoa! I do not have time for this!” keep in mind that all of these elements could make up a single 1-hour workout.

It doesn’t need to be a life event!

So…how much cardio should you do?

The current rec for cardiovascular exercise is 150 minutes of moderate intensity per week.

What does that look like?

It could be 30 to 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 days a week. Moderate intensity means that your heart rate goes up, but you could still talk during the activity.

This could mean taking a brisk walk or a steady state bike ride. It could also mean low impact floor aerobics, a gentle hike or a barre class. Essentially, anything that gets your heart rate up for a sustained amount of time counts!

Orrrr…you could do 20 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise 3 days per week. Vigorous meaning it would be hard to hold a conversation or you even find breathlessness. 

This could be running, plyometric work (anything with jumping), a interval based spin class or high impact aerobics.

I think it’s worth nothing that even though ASCM says up to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise, it doesn’t mean that you need to go balls out for 60 minutes. In fact, you can’t!

The higher the intensity, the faster you will run out of breath, so my best guess is that they mean something that looks more like a cardio circuit where there are bouts of high intensity followed by active recovery.

Bottom Line: Virtually anything can be cardio, so pick something that you enjoy that feels good for your body.

And even if you don’t quite meet the recommendations, every little bit counts!

In fact, studies have found that shorter sessions of 10 minutes or more can be nearly as beneficial as a longer session, so don’t feel bad about breaking up your cardio throughout the day. Even the walk to and from your car will count if you part far enough away!

For example, if you took two 15-minute walks a day for 5 days a week, you would still meet your cardio requirements.

Not so bad, right?

How much strength training should you do?

According to ASCM, you should train each major muscle group 2 to 3 days a week and if you’re an older adult or have just started exercising again then you will want to start with less intensity, before working your way up to more challenging weights and exercises.

What does that mean?

Every 48 to 72 hours (because recovery is important!), you want to incorporate some sort of strength training. The resistance could come from bodyweight exercises, free weights, resistance bands or even machines.

Typically, you will choose a few exercises and then do 8-12 reps of each exercise if your goal is strength + power OR 15-20 reps if your goal is muscular endurance.

You will want to do 2-4 sets of each exercise.

Now, I know that’s a little vague, but it’s because there are a million ways to strength train! Believe it or not, Pilates and Kettlebells both technically fall under strength training – even though they are apples and oranges.

The good news is that this gives you room to experiment. Lift some heavy objects and mix it up with some bodyweight training. Again, find the thing that you like that you will stick with.

Bottom line: Taking the time to move and do something enjoyable is in some ways more important than trying to find the perfect program (which may make you crazy).

How much flexibility training should you do?

According to ACSM, adults should practice flexibility exercises (static stretching, foam rolling, dynamic stretching) two to three days a week. You should stretch (or foam roll) only to a point of gentle sensation and not pain. Stretches can be held for 10 to 30 seconds and can be done multiple times until you’ve spent up to a minute in any one stretch.

Now, ASCM didn’t mention foam rolling, but I added it in there, because studies have found that it does help decrease soreness and I’ve seen it help hundreds of clients increase their mobility. Now, what might this look like in the context of your life?

– You could stretch for 5 minutes first thing in the morning or right before bed.

– You could stretch or foam roll before or after your workout or do strength exercises that require dynamic stretching. A lot of moves on the Pilates reformer do this.

– You could stretch at your desk.

My point is that this takes basically no time and can be done anywhere.


Feeling like this is doable? Good! We only have one more left – functional training.

So what is functional training and how much should you do?

Functional training is any type of exercise that improves balance, coordination, gait or agility and ACSM says you can do up to 30 minutes of it a day.

So…if you haven’t figured this out, it’s really easy to sneak this stuff into your workout and it has a big cross over with strength training. Standing on one leg? That’s balance. Using a BOSU? You’ve got coordination. Doing a monster walk with a band? Gait. Many of these moves could easily make up a weight-training warm-up or could be incorporated into the meat of strength program.

Yoga, Pilates and Tai-chi are all good examples of modalities that incorporate functional training, but again, you could find these elements in many exercise programs.

So what would this look like if you put it ALL together?

If you wanted to be really efficient and still meet the basic exercise recs, you could…

– Take two 15-minute walks Monday through Friday

– Do 30 minutes to an hour of resistance training 3x a week that targeted all major muscle groups and incorporated some form of balance/proprioceptive challenge

– Make a point of stretching/foam rolling for 5 to 10 minutes at your desk or before/after your walk or workout.

I get it. Finding time to workout is hard, but hopefully this makes it seem like it may be achievable to make movement a part of your day.

Final notes:

ACSM concludes their recs by saying that meeting these requirements won’t necessarily save you from having health problems and that being sedentary is a risk factor.

That’s a bummer, but I think we already knew those things.

So, instead, let me end this with some good news.

95 percent of the benefit of exercise doesn’t come from what you did, it came from the fact that you got up and moved, so rather than obsess over what you’re doing just pick something that you enjoy + seems manageable and try to do more of it.

It doesn’t have to be crazy or intense and it certainly doesn’t have to hurt. Consistency will get you the best results in the long run.

Coincidentally, this is also your homework. Try to do more of an enjoyable physical activity this week. Take an extra walk or incorporate a daily stretch break at your desk.