Why LESS Exercise Can Be BETTER for You
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Which of these statements is true:
1. If someone is in good shape, they probably work out ~5x per week.
2. If you aren’t reaching your goals, you probably aren’t exercising enough.
The answer is “neither.” They’re both harmful lies.
Even if you don’t exercise at all, the idea that it’s not worth it if you can’t be consistent 5 days per week… it may hold you back from ever getting started.
And if you DO work out, if you don’t get the results you want, you could end up blaming it on yourself — rather than faulty strategies — and it can push you to either quit, or try harder until you burn out or get hurt.
I’m going to show you why working out LESS is not only a viable option, it’s actually a BETTER idea for most people, and I’ll give specific guidelines, too.
Exploding Stomach, Anyone?
Most people can accept the concept of “something is better than nothing” when it comes to exercise. It’s much harder to believe that LESS exercise can actually be MORE beneficial for a lot of people.
But if you think about it, we all know you can have too much of a good thing. For example:
Having a 3 day weekend from work: GOOD. Taking a two week vacation from work: BETTER. Never working and becoming homeless and hungry: NOT SO GOOD.
Having dessert once a month on a diet: GOOD. Having freedom in your diet to eat dessert more regularly: BETTER. Eating so much dessert in one sitting that your stomach literally explodes: KIND OF A BUMMER.
Exercise is the same way.
The Benefits of Less Exercise
It IS true, any tiny little bit of exercise is better than nothing. Just doing “something” — any kind of activity, really — is a great place to start.
That’s the “GOOD.”
Unfortunately, the benefits of that can plateau quickly. If you want a higher quality of life so you consistently feel good and so it’s easier to reach your long-term goals, eventually you’ll need to do more than just “something.”
What most people don’t realize, though, is that you don’t have to exercise every day to see significant results (as we talk about in “5 Myths You Have to Stop Believing to Lose Weight”). Hear me out…
You could get totally jacked and have a chiseled six-pack with less exercise than you realize. That’s not a goal we’re personally interested in — and our clients aren’t either — but it’s worth mentioning because it’s an extreme example.
If you’re like us and have more sensible goals, like reaching a healthy weight and having more strength and energy to get through your day and keep up with your kids, doing “less exercise” is great for that, too.
That’s the part that’s “BETTER” (rather than just “good”).
So what about the “BAD?” It’ll help if we clearly define what we mean by “less” and “more” when it comes to exercise in the first place.
What Is Too Much Exercise?
If you look at the highest performing athletes in the world, you’ll have a hard time finding one who doesn’t spend a significant amount of time in the gym.
You’re not a professional athlete, but if MORE works for them, why wouldn’t it work for you?
The highest level athletes don’t simply work out more.
They also have their nutrition dialed in, they get adequate sleep (sometimes needing 10+ hours a night), and each workout is designed with a specific purpose — NOT just to kick their butt for the sake of doing “more.”
If you aren’t ready to start sleeping more every night, and you aren’t at a place where you know exactly how to eat to stay in elite physical condition, then don’t take on an exercise program with workouts that leave you feeling wrecked — certainly not multiple times per week.
Best case scenario, you won’t make any progress because your body will constantly just be trying to “catch up” from your workouts rather than getting ahead. Worst case, you’ll end up hurt, malnourished, or just plain giving up.
That’s the “BAD,” and that’s what too much exercise is: Anything that beats your body up more than it builds it up.
How Much Is That?
Everyone is different as far as how much their body can withstand before reaching a point of diminishing returns.
A professional athlete can do more because their career (and whole life) is centered around training to be the best. A mom in her 40’s who stays at home and takes care of her kids has different priorities and, as a result, a different threshold.
The good news is, the difference between what you can accomplish at the bottom range of what’s effective and the peak of your current threshold… it’s pretty negligible.
You’ll get similar results either way, so you might as well keep it realistic rather than trying to do more for hardly any extra reward.
We have 3 specific guidelines for doing just that.
1. Workout 2-3x per Week
It’s not that this is some magical number. Sometimes doing more does make sense. This just happens to be the number most people can realistically commit to without sacrificing their bigger priorities like family, work, or date nights.
You can even get a lot done with just one really good workout per week. But 2-3 puts you in a range where you can get similar results compared to doing 5 or 6.
I recommend prioritizing strength exercise to get the most bang for your buck (see why here). At the very least, be sure to follow a good workout program designed specifically with your goals in mind (like we do for our clients).
2. Stick with 30(ish) Minute Workouts
Our clients’ workouts typically last somewhere between 20-45 minutes.
It doesn’t matter where you land in this range (and you can go shorter or longer if you want). It mostly comes down to personal preference.
Some people like to keep it short and get it over with. Others enjoy how they feel once the workout starts and like to get a bit more done. There’s no right or wrong other than finding what you’re most likely to stick with, and even that can change with the seasons.
3. Finish the Workout Feeling Good
A good workout program will be strategically challenging rather than just “kicking your butt.”
Ending every workout lying on the floor in a puddle of sweat isn’t the most effective strategy. It’s not always a bad thing, but it isn’t something that needs to happen on a regular basis.
By all means, you should work hard and not just coast through the exercises. But, in the end, your workouts should help you feel better, not add more stress to your life and make you want to spend the rest of the day on the couch.
If you don’t get the results you want from exercise (or if progress just stops after a while), the answer obviously isn’t to exercise more. But what’s actually going on and what should you do about it?
It could be the program you’re on isn’t great — even if it follows the 3 guidelines from above. Those guidelines are a great starting point, but there’s so much more that goes into a good workout program. Most of what I see people doing in the gym isn’t “bad” per se, but it’s pretty inefficient.
There’s also a strong possibility that your eating habits aren’t supporting your goals or complementing your exercise routine effectively.
Or it could be you aren’t getting enough high-quality sleep, or aren’t managing stress effectively, or just aren’t being patient enough and/or have unrealistic expectations.
Most likely, it’s a combination of some of the above (and more).
What I can tell you for sure is that, whatever the underlying issues are, diet and exercise make up a significant chunk of the solution.
There isn’t some hidden secret you’re missing out on. There aren’t any science-y “hacks” that will move the needle in a noticeable way. It all comes down to finding realistic strategies that will help you eat better and be more active (without simply doing a ton of exercise).
We can make that possible by creating a customized diet and exercise program that will help you lose weight and feel healthier, even if you think something may be “wrong” with you or you feel like your age is working against you.
If you were an Olympic athlete, it would make sense to exercise every day — but you’d have to re-prioritize your life to make it effective and worth the effort.
If you want more “normal” results (e.g. losing weight, fitting in clothes better, feeling stronger, more energy, etc.)… working out 2-3x per week for ~30 minutes each at a moderate intensity (NOT getting your butt kicked) will get you results that are as good or BETTER than doing more because it allows for more recovery.
Our customized diet and exercise coaching can give you realistic strategies to make that happen, even if you think something may be “wrong” with you or you feel like your age is working against you.