How hard do I need to exercise?
Updated: Jul 16
"Would you punish me?" Ok that certainly needs some explanation and contextualising! That was what an old school friend asked me during a conversation about the prospect of having some personal training. My sense was that she valued training sessions by the degree to which they hurt. While it's useful to get uncomfortable at times in order to get fitter, leaner or stronger, there is a bit more to it than that. There are several considerations in figuring out how hard you need to exercise. Read on and learn more:
*Consistency matters most
2 super human workouts in a month will never be more beneficial than 8 moderate or low intensity sessions within the same period. To get the true benefits from exercise you need to accumulate regular workouts over time, there's no way around it. Your fitness level and body composition will tell the story of your habits over months, decades and years. Prioritising building the habit of exercising is crucial, the best way of doing that is often to err on the easy side initially. As a guide, when starting out on a new exercise routine go at a level where you finish feeling you could have done a fair bit more. This is distinctly different from the sense that you couldn't wait for the exercise session to end.
Once the habit is ingrained you can always up the ante, especially if you're not getting the results you want. Initial overzealous training can be cause for injury, extreme soreness and a loss of motivation and confidence in your ability to get fit and develop a routine. Think about going at a pace that's going to best allow you to develop a routine that'll last for years, rather than doing something with the aim of changing your physique within a couple of weeks.
* You can go long or hard but you can't do both.
A high level of effort is only sustainable for a short period, an elite athlete who has peaked for a major event may be the exception to this one, but for the rest of us it's usually a poor strategy to go both long and hard. The likely outcomes are tiring quickly, getting really sore afterwards meaning you can't exercise again for a while (which is contrary to what you need to do to get fit) and getting injured. Additionally it's hard from a motivational perspective to continue to face up to long grueling workouts. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has become popular in large part because of the reported big results from a small period i.e. 3-5 minutes of effort. If you investigate the studies closely though, you'll find that the intensity needed to get the results really is damn high. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding this type of training requires more motivation to get started on than a 1 hour workout. HIIT most certainly has value but I'd recommend getting a good chunk of longer easy to moderate intensity sessions done so you can cope well when you opt for this style of training. This approach when appropriately applied can compliment those lengthier, easier sessions nicely. Clearly, available time for exercise will influence how hard you should go. A simple & reliable guide is: Long= easy to moderate. Medium= moderate. Short= high. * Your physical state should influence how hard you go. Tired? Rundown? Hungover? Dehydrated? Lack of fuel? Sore throat? Stressed? You are limited by your physical state. It's wise to modify the intensity of exercise if you're not in top shape- this happens a lot in personal training sessions, and it's the responsible thing for a PT to do. You run the risk of depleting your immune system to the point of illness if you go hard when you're in far from ideal health. Lack of fluid and food can also result in much deeper muscle soreness than you'd otherwise expect. *Exercising too much is a more common problem than exercising too hard Over training is typically a result of doing too much exercise, it comes about as a result of insufficient recovery between sessions. This happens when the body doesn't get the chance to repair and adapt before it is broken down again, if that occurs regularly injury, illness and fatigue result. In fact your fitness can decline rather improve, beyond a certain volume of activity. It is indeed possible to go too hard, but again, being in a compromised physical state (as described above- fatigued, ill, dehydrated etc) will increase chance of bringing on problems if and when you do. As this study shows less than 5% of 35-65 year old's who have heart attacks, have them during exercise. Among that group two thirds of them had known heart disease, while one third had had symptoms such as chest pain and breathlessness in the week prior. Clearly it's wise not to go hard if you've recently experienced symptoms, have a known heart condition or are in the compromised physical state explained. There is a condition called Rhabdomyolysis, which can be caused by going extremely hard (usually with strength training) that involves a breaking down and leaking of muscle cells. This usually occurs when people push their body to an extreme in the pursuit of very high level physical performance. It's not a concern for those engaging in regular exercise with a conventional approach.
* How hard I typically push clients and how hard I go myself. I'm acutely aware a 1 hour personal training session can be a daunting prospect for someone who hasn't been exercising regularly. Push them hard in the first 10 minutes and it's going to turn into a long and unenjoyable 60 minutes, the chances of them dreading regular sessions goes up, while potential for developing an enjoyable relationship to exercise goes down. I strive to keep clients at a 7 out of 10 intensity. This will result in a sense they're doing something productive (which indeed they are), that with a degree of effort, can be maintained through a session and is sustainable for ongoing regular workouts. This 7 out of 10 is the same perceived rate of exertion for everyone but the actual weights lifted or speed of walking/running etc will vary from person to person depending on the individual's level of fitness. It's a level where you can talk if need be and have a little in reserve. To provide greater context 9 out of 10 is really hard work and exceptionally uncomfortable, while 10 is the hardest you can possibly go. If a client commits to doing those 7/10 sessions 2-3 times per week results will come, as evidenced by progress in ability to go faster or longer at that same 7 out of 10 effort level. People who train only once a week do get benefit and some moderate initial improvement, and twice weekly offers greater benefit, while 3 sessions/week can be cause for really significant change. The picture looks a little different with my own training, mainly because of late I've had a focus on some goals for 5km run's and Obstacle Course Races. As I try to extract a higher level of performance from my body than my clients, my training program includes 5-6 sessions per week. The theory of differing intensities for differing lengths of workouts still governs the approach though. There are 2 x 40-60 minute sessions which are at a 6-7/10, 2 moderate sessions of 20-35 minutes @ 7-8 out of 10 and 2 x 15 minute sessions at a more taxing 9/10. I use a heart rate monitor to track the effort level I target for each session, and tend to be pretty precise about how hard I go, similarly my strength training is very specifically planned out with sets and reps. I find the varying intensities within my program keep it interesting and collectively compliment one another. I have of course built myself up to that amount of training over time and have learnt through experience that going like a bull at a gate all the time is just asking for trouble. * When you could benefit most from going hard If you've been exercising consistently for a while, going hard can actually help with motivation, in part due to pushing more into the zone where you can get the euphoric feelings associated with runners high. It's a pretty direct payback for the effort put in. It can also prevent staleness from doing the same old thing over and over again, besides which you really do need some progression to move forward with your fitness. There are plenty of people who have a solid routine in place but lack a variation in intensity and could really benefit from throwing up a new level of challenge for the body in order to get new gains. There is no definitive answer as to how hard you need to exercise. Like just about anything in life, context matters and making considered choices is best. If you are confused though and need some help drop me a line and I'll do my best to provide some clarity- without obligation! I offer mobile personal training at your home or nearby park which makes it very convenient and time effective. If you live in Frenchs Forest, Belrose, Davidson, Terrey Hills, St Ives, Forestville, Killarney Heights, Roseville, East Linfield, Seaforth, Mosman or a bit beyond I can come to you.
Enjoy that article? For more insights on mind & body and how to feel, function & perform better subscribe to my blog (don't worry you're inbox won't be bombarded, there'll be articles fortnightly at most)
Please also share this with a friend via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or email by clicking on one of the icons below.