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  • Writer's pictureAsh Radford

Is it better to exercise every day or 3 times a week?

Yes! Question answered. Goodbye. Sorry, poor attempt at humour, but both are definitely a lot better than doing nothing. The answer though, like so many things in life, is it depends. Here’s the major things it depends on:

1. How hard you exercise

The harder you exercise the more recovery you need before you’re able to exercise again. Go flat out i.e. 9 or 10/10 on the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale and there’ll be depletion of body fuels stores and micro tears of muscle fibres. It takes some time for the body to refuel and repair. If your approach is to go hard, 3 days a week will work. You’ll need the 48 hours recovery between each session for several parts, of several physical systems, to recover and adapt. It’s not just the body that needs to be considered. Day after day of high intensity exercise takes some serious motivation. You need to make sure the mind is fresh and up for it. In all likelihood there’ll be a natural inclination to have days off from hard exercise anyway. On the other hand, if you take a gentler approach, like walking, there’ll be little recovery needed. As evidenced by all the regular walkers around suburban streets, it’s doable daily.

2. How long you exercise

Although walking takes little recovery, if you take enough steps you’ll tire and need, and want, to rest for a day. Plus, for many people in practice, their schedule simply won’t permit multi hour treks every day. It may though, work well if you tend to get larger windows of time opening up every few days. Shorter workouts generally lend themselves to a more regular, and perhaps daily, frequency. Length of workout also matters relative to how hard you go. Although, as explained, going hard takes some recovery , going hard for a short period is more achievable daily, than hard and long. The latter not only creates need for days off but is almost impossible. Highly trained athletes are capable of hard and long but don’t often do so and reserve such efforts for competition. After which, they won’t exercise for multiple days. Put simply, the more exercise takes out of you the more recovery you take. How hard and how long both contribute to that.

3. Your goals & motivation

Calander for exercise schedule
Photo by Asif Akbar from FreeImages

If you’re committing to running a marathon, then training 3 times a week won’t be enough. It’s a serious undertaking and you’ll need lots of regular manageable level runs to build up the mileage in the legs. Spreading those miles throughout the week is a sound strategy. It’ll mean reduced risk of both injury and illness. 3 sessions of strength training a week however is ideal if increasing bone density is your goal. Especially if you’re getting some cardio exercise from being active in daily life. It’s important to note that strength training requires a longer recovery between sessions than cardiovascular training. The microtears to muscle fibres are more significant and direct than any damage from cardio exercise. You’ll find exceptions are if you try a type of cardio you’re not used to or go overboard with intensity or duration.

If you’ve a lofty goal with a time constraint it’ll influence exercise frequency too. Wanting to lose 10kg in 3 months for example, will likely take daily exercise. Getting fit for amateur level team sport will generally suit 3 sessions a week. This is assuming there’s also skills practice and a match each week.

4. What's sustainable for you

Aside from exercise science and goals, what’s realistic to sustain matters too. If you’re busy juggling the demands of family, work and whatever else, you need to get real about what you’re aiming for. Hour long daily workouts may prove too hard to maintain. It’s common to then feel discouraged from falling short of such an ambitious plan. It can lead to giving up altogether. If you’re prone to this, be wary of taking an all or nothing approach, it’s rarely wise in practice. Exercising is a habit that’s worthwhile but hard to establish and maintain. It pays to actually make it easy to do regularly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that 3 sessions a week is easier than 7. When it comes to exercise and habit the ideal is to have it be almost automatic. Something you barely have to think about it. Daily can help with that. Brushing your teeth twice a day for instance, is easier to remember than watering the garden 3 times a week. Think about what’s likely to work for your specific circumstances.

5. How active you are in daily life

Wearing a pedometer for a day can reveal just how much, or how little, you move. You’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking”. We know being desk bound all day is plain bad for you. If that’s your situation daily walks before or after work will benefit body and mind. Striving for the recommended 10000 steps a day is a simple and effective way of consistently getting activity level up. Whereas, if your job involves taking more than 10000 steps a day then thrice-weekly yoga or strength workouts will give you a more well-rounded exercise routine. Have a look at the World Health Organisation physical activity guidelines and see how your current your activity level stacks up. It can help in figuring out how often to exercise to reach a decent fitness level. As well as give you an idea of a reasonable mix of intensity level and amount, of cardio and strength training. Guidelines are more than useful however there’s no magic formula. This is as true for exercise frequency as it is for intensity and duration. In truth the evidence as to whether 3 times per week or every day is best for exercise adherence is mixed. [1, 2, 3] With that in mind it’s useful to have a look at the pros and cons of each:

Every day

Pros: * can be easier to make habitual * easier to remember * good for repeatable lower intensity exercise * if you miss a day it won’t reduce your weekly activity level much Cons: * can get boring if doing the same low intensity activity every day * isn’t ideal for longer more intense forms of exercise * can be impractical if busy

3 times a week

Pros: * good for staying mentally fresh * can suit a busy schedule * suitable for strength training * provides time to recovery and adapt to intense or long workouts Cons: * can be harder to habitualise * miss a session and weekly activity level drops significantly * could mean slower results than daily if sessions aren’t hard or long enough

An alternative

Of course you aren’t bound to either daily or 3 x week. Incidentally, if you wonder why you often hear 3 times a week as a suggested exercise frequency it’s thanks to the American College of Sports Medicine’s 1975 guidelines, There was an emphasis on cardiovascular fitness, especially to prevent heart disease. The guideline basically was 3 sessions a week for 20-30 min @ a vigorous or intense level. It was adapted globally and seemed to just stick for many years. It essentially works but gave way to broader guidelines, as the benefits of other intensities, frequencies and forms of exercise became known. Anyway, an alternative is 5 days a week. I find this works for me. Although I love exercise I really look forward to, and enjoy, those 2 (non-consecutive) days off. I then feel refreshed and ready to plough ahead with the next workout. Even during times I’m looking to up the ante, and do 6 sessions in a week, I stick with 5 days. This is possible through doing a morning and evening session one day a week. These are 2 shorter sessions and I’ll follow them with a day off. Naturally I’ll be a little tired on that rest day, but it’ll give my body a good chance to adapt. Inevitably when I resume I’m noticeably stronger and fitter. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who find 4 or 6 sessions a week practical and effective as well. Ultimately, (as this study shows) for the vast majority what’s most important is getting total monthly or yearly activity level up. Whether that’s spread over 3 or 7 sessions a week (or something in between) is less important than simply having it happen. The WHO guidelines mentioned support that view, as number of workouts a week isn’t mentioned (apart from 2 strength sessions) it’s suggested to tally a certain number of minutes of exercise over a week. What there’s no doubt about is that 3 is the minimum to aim for. Exercising twice a week is useful but gives you far less benefit than 3 times. While once is better than nothing and can be a starting point to build on. To sum up, aiming to walk every day is a wise approach. Whereas, for vigorous exercise 3 times a week is likely more sustainable. If you have more specific needs or goals then another frequency may work, as it certainly does for many people. Enjoy that article? Please share this with a friend via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Linkedin

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