You only want to spend the absolute bare minimum time in the gym — that's natural. After all, you're busy. And if we're being really honest, there are probably things other than exercise that you'd rather spend your time on. Still, the last thing you want is to exercise and not see results.
So how much and often do you really need to work out to improve your health and fitness? Like most things, there's no single, straightforward answer. But here's how you can figure out what "bare minimum" looks like for you.
Something Is Always Better Than Nothing
First off, it's important to realize that, when it comes to movement, every rep, set and second will move you that much closer to your goals, says Kourtney Thomas, CSCS, a St. Louis-based trainer and strength and conditioning specialist.
In fact, according to an August 2019 analysis published in the BMJ, any exercise, for any duration and at any intensity, comes with a substantially lower risk for early death. Also, in the review, researchers note that the dose-response pattern between exercise and longevity is non-linear, meaning that going from zero to 10 minutes of exercise per day may be much more beneficial for your health than going from 60 to 70 minutes.
An October 2019 study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine came to a similar conclusion. Researchers found that any amount of running was associated with a lower risk of early death from all causes, specifically cardiovascular disease and cancer. People even benefitted from a single run a week that lasted less than 50 minutes at a pace below 6 mph.
Meanwhile, a March 2019 British Journal of Sports Medicine study shows that even 10 minutes of exercise per week is associated with a lower risk of death, including from cardiovascular disease and certain forms of cancer.
"A little bit of movement can truly change the course of your day, and over time, even small, but consistent, bits of it can make big improvements in how you feel and your overall health," Thomas says.
What the Guidelines Say
Even the U.S. government is on board with this philosophy. In 2018, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans were edited to eliminate the requirement that any physical activity happen in bouts of at least 10 minutes.
Every single second of activity counts toward its weekly recommendation:
At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking), plus total-body-strengthening activities at least two days per week. If activity is more intense, such as running or sprinting on a stationary bike, as little as 75 minutes per week may be enough.
It's important to note, though, that the guidelines say this is the minimum for good health and not necessarily what's needed to dramatically move the needle.
Decoding Your "Bare Minimum"
Exactly how much exercise you need depends on a lot of different factors. No two people, even on the exact same workout regimen, will make fitness progress the same way, thanks to differences in age, ethnicity, gender and genetics. For example, it takes less time and effort to make fitness gains in your younger years, when your body has higher base levels of muscle, testosterone, growth hormone and bone mass.
Additionally, muscle levels vary widely depending on both ethnicity and sex, according to January 2011 research published in the American Journal of Human Biology. Fortunately for women, though they tend to have lower base levels of muscle mass, they appear to make similar percentage gains in muscle mass with a given exercise routine compared with men, according to a May 2018 research published in PLOS ONE. It's just that 10 percent of 10 is less than 10 percent of 100.
Here are a few other scenarios where you might need to tweak your bare minimum.
If You're New to Exercise
Good news for newbies: You can make substantial progress with minimal time investment, says Ryan Campbell, a kinesiologist and training specialist at Anytime Fitness of Southern Wisconsin. That's because, every person has a genetic "upper limit" to their fitness potential. And the closer you are to that limit, the more challenging it is to continue making progress toward it.
What's more, in the first months of any new training program, especially one involving strength movements, you can expect to make big performance gains very quickly as your neuromuscular system learns how to complete certain exercises more efficiently.
However, during this time, despite increases in strength, speed and other fitness measures, physiological changes — such as muscle growth — aren't actually as huge of a contributor as you might hope.
After eight-ish weeks though, your neurological system pretty much has the execution of your movements down, and any further increases in fitness in strength are mostly due to muscle growth — and happen much more slowly, Campbell says.
If You Want to Lose Weight
While you don't have to exercise to lose weight, you just need to establish a caloric deficit, research (like an October 2012 study from Obesity) shows that when people exercise as part of their weight-loss plan, they reap better results.
"Your bare minimum might look like daily walks and three time per week of total-body strength training," Thomas says.
But like with cardiovascular health, picking up the intensity could shorten the time investment required to achieve those results. For example, in a January 2017 Journal of Diabetes Research study, women who performed high-intensity interval exercise lost the same amount of weight and body fat as those who performed moderate-intensity cardio, but in significantly less time.
If You Want to Build Muscle
Thomas says that as little as two to three 20- to 30-minute sessions may be enough to start to see some muscle definition or at least hang onto the muscle you already have.
And while federal guidelines recommend doing full-body strengthening workouts at least twice a week, a November 2016 review in the journal Sports Medicine says you should train each muscle group twice a week for maximum results. That said, training each muscle group even once per week did make a small difference, if you're really going for the bare minimum.
To get the most out of each session, prioritize large, compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, push-ups and rows rather than isolation exercises like biceps curls and leg extensions.
If You Want to Keep Your Heart Healthy
If you're exercising in a bit to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol levels, the federal guidelines' bare minimum may not be enough. The American Heart Association advises increasing both your exercise time and intensity to an average of 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-cardiovascular activity three to four times per week.
Before starting a high-intensity workout routine, though, it's important to make sure that its safe for you to push your heart that hard.
That said, you make discernible changes in cardiovascular fitness as well as endurance quite quickly, as many changes are driven by chemical, rather than structural, changes. With this time and intensity, even four weeks could be enough to start to move the needle, Campbell says.
- The BJM: Dose-response associations between accelerometry measured physical activity and sedentary time and all cause mortality: systematic review and harmonised meta-analysis
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Is running associated with a lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality, and is the more the better? A systematic review and meta-analysis
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Beneficial associations of low and large doses of leisure time physical activity with all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality: a national cohort study of 88,140 US adults
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- American Journal of Human Biology: Ethnicity-Related Skeletal Muscle Differences Across the Lifespan
- PLOS ONE: Gender associated muscle-tendon adaptations to resistance training
- American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids
- Sports Medicine: Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
- Obesity: Effect of Diet and Exercise, Alone or Combined, on Weight and Body Composition in Overweight‐to‐Obese Postmenopausal Women
- Journal of Diabetes Research: Comparable Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training and Prolonged Continuous Exercise Training on Abdominal Visceral Fat Reduction in Obese Young Women