I always wanted to lose weight growing up.
When I finally decided to make a change I did the only thing I knew anything about… I exercised more.
In fact, I used to workout everyday vigorously.
After a year of exercising religiously I began telling myself that forty-five minute workouts didn’t count.
Nothing counted unless it was sixty minutes of sweaty cardio.
Some days I would *allow* myself to eat certain things based on how hard my workouts were. And, after several years of doing this I began working out extra hard other days simply to fit in a brownie, a bigger bowl of oatmeal or some pizza on a Friday night.
One night in college I remember looking at a text I was sending to someone before bed about how I was going to sleep early to get up to workout (again) and I paused…
…Did I really need to workout again?
…Is this crazy workout schedule sustainable?
I was the heaviest I had ever been, the most active I had ever been an the most tired person.
Flash forward six years….
New Client: “So what about my workouts? Do I have to exercise everyday?”
Me: Absolutely not.
I get this question with every new nutrition client.
And while I am as active as a labrador retriever puppy and I believe in movement (hence my mantra #daretomove), exercising every single day is not required, necessary or realistic for most people trying to lose fat.
The short answer is no.
And unfortunately the longer answer is it depends.
There is no cookie-cutter, perfect amount of exercise per week for successful fat loss.
Exercise is not mandated. View it as a tool to help the fat loss process and to add value to your life.
Ultimately, your exercise regime should depend on how important other goals like strength gains, muscle toning, glute growth or goals in reducing stress are to you.
Here’s what you need to know in short:
- two to four days of strength training a week will give you results in strength and definition
- movement is always a good idea for general health concerns
- fat loss is dictated by a deficit created via calories in
- bodies are built / toned from stressing the muscles and making #gainz
- Thus, exercise is an excellent tool for fat loss but exercising everyday is not required
How much should you exercise for general health?
According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for American Adults on Health.gov set by The Center for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, about 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate intensity exercise a week is required.
That means you could do five, 30 minute workouts a week to hit the governmental guidelines, maintain general health and get the full benefits of being active. (Side note: if you sign up for my newsletter you will receive free, 30 minute workouts every month).
The government then goes on to say that you can get by with simply doing 75 vigorous minutes a week.
This means you could ideally do five 15 minute workouts so long as they are very vigorous (think HIIT, sprinting, conditioning circuits).
Going on walks, jogging, doing circuits, attending a yoga class etc are all great ways to be active.
If hiking every day makes you happy there’s no problem with such exercise each day.
But for this article’s purposes we are considering how often you should exercise for fat loss, not simply general health.
Let’s say you are proud of your exercise #everydamnday lifestyle. You feel athletic, you know you’re strong and fast…. but you don’t necessarily want to be scene without a shirt….
How much to do need to exercise to get rid of it?
Exercise is not required for fat loss.
Can it speed up the process? Sure.
Is it always the best tool?
It depends on what type of exercise you are doing and for how long… but we will get to that at the end.
For starters, I urge anyone to at least get the bare minimum amount of weekly activity as mandated by the government because movement for general health is important.
Okay, I think I hammered in that point.
If you are that avid, exercise #everydamnday type of person you are probably thinking there is no way in this world you could do any more exercise.
And you’re probably right. So how do you lose the weight?
To effectively lose weight you must be in a caloric deficit.
You must put nutrition first.
Then exercise comes in as an effective tool to help create a greater deficit.
If you take a sedentary man named John and put him on an strength training, exercise program three days a week, he is bound to lose weight (initially) without changing his eating habits.
John used exercising to create a caloric deficit by burning a few hundred calories three days a week.
This very simple example doesn’t always work for everyone.
Some people start exercising once per week, move to two days a week and next thing you know they are exercising every day hoping for more results and not getting them.
Relying on exercise can be frustrating when the goal is fat loss.
Here are three initial problems with using exercise as the primary tool for fat loss:
1) You hate exercising.
If you hate something it isn’t going to stick, right? If you sign up for a kickboxing class and loath every minute of it, how in the world will you motivate yourself to go on a regular basis?
You get the most benefits out of exercise when you do it on a regular basis. Strength training for example, is used to build strength. Building strength takes time and consistent effort towards stressing the same muscles week after week.
I have a nutrition client named Kathy who for a long time really didn’t care much for exercising. She would have rather spent hours strategizing her calories and mapping out how to stay on track nutritionally than she would spend 20 minutes lifting weights.
But after a realization that she had hit a low calorie point and a bit of a plateau where she didn’t want to drop her calories any lower (and she needed exercise for other health reasons) she realized she had to bite the bullet and start working out.
First we tried to figure out why she hated it in order to see how we could get her to love it.
It turned out that she hated huge gyms, the production of actually getting there after a long day, the stress of being around so many people and she hated having no clue what to do.
In the past she worked with a trainer but he was no longer available.
We decided to first begin with baseline challenges she could do at home that would take her five minutes.
Every two weeks she had to attempt the five, 60 second challenges and beat her own records.
In order to beat her own records, she had to practice a few times a week for 15 to 20 minutes with her kettlebells.
Simply making it a game allowed her to burn a few hundred extra calories a week and in turn create a greater deficit for the week. This alone helped her to keep her calories the same as they were and continue to see more progress.
Your takeaway: if you hate doing ” ___” form of exercise don’t force yourself to do it. Try and find an enjoyable way to be active; that activity can help assist in scoring at the game of fat loss.
2) Exercising makes you more hungry.
Cardio tends to increase appetite for some people. Doing work requires energy and as energy is lost the body wants more, always fighting for an energy balance.
In my experience the more cardio I do the hungrier I get.
Plus, I learned the hard way that contrary to common beliefs, you don’t actually burn 1,000 calories a spin class; and I couldn’t eat an extra couple scoops of peanut butter afterwards every workout and lose weight.
If you struggle with this, make sure to check out my article on How to Pre- & Post-Workout Fuel for Fat Loss. Learning how to space out meals and have a handle on calories takes strategy.
Sometimes going with a rest day and lower calories is better than opting for an intense workout.
Several of my clients ask, “But what about the ripped triathletes that workout so much?”
“They exercise all the time and stay lean.”
Being super lean and very active takes a lot of experience with nutrition and a really good handle on how much to consume prior to extended bouts of exercise.
Here’s an example of how nutrition might need to come first to lose fat:
Kelly is hungry at 3 pm. She counts her calories in her fat loss program.
She knows she should really only eat 400 more calories for the day. She is contemplating doing a workout or going home, eating an early dinner and calling it a day.
If she goes home and eats a 300 calorie dinner, saving 100 calories for a small nighttime snack she will stay on track.
But, if she goes to workout at 5 p.m. she might need a snack beforehand to get through the workout, leaving less calories for a nutritious filling dinner afterward.
After feverishly contemplating what she should do, she decides to suck it up and workout without a snack.
Kelly leaves the workout ravenously hungry.
She wants to eat everything in sight when she gets home.
She snacks on “healthy foods:” kale chips while she cooks some chicken, has a rice cake while the sweet potato roasts and then has a few handfuls of blueberries.
By the time dinner is prepared Kelly already ate 300 plus calories before her 400 calorie dinner.
That’s 700 total. Three-hundred more than she needs for the day.
If by chance she burned 300 she might have negated the extra food but this is fine line on which to balance and not the best way to lose fat.
There is a lot of guess work going on, on top of an inexact science with which to begin.
Your Takeaway: Your calories should be set and unwavering if your goal is fat loss. Then your exercise should fit into your lifestyle strategically to get results.
Your exercise plan should exist for fun, enjoyment, because it’s a hobby, because you have secondary goals in muscle or strength gains, or because you enjoy a specific fitness community.
You can see results in strength and fat loss at the same time… but this only happens when everything is controlled.
Working out incessantly (due to addiction, training for a competition or for a race) and eating to fuel the workouts is a tough game to play when fat loss it the goal. It’s challenging because it’s hard to know exactly how much you are really burning and eating more in general makes it harder to lose fat.
Remember, the deficit is key.
3) You hit a breaking point after too much exercise
There comes a point when too much is simply too much. After several weeks of nonstop, intense hour plus workouts you either hit a wall of exhaustion, get injured, stop seeing results or grow to hate exercising.
Even worse, you realize you are spending more time planning for your run, driving to the trail, running for 90 minutes, driving home, and showering than anything else.
Plus, your ultimate goal has nothing to do with going to the olympics for running or being a marathon runner.
Rest assured that if your number one goal is to look better naked then hours of cardio, jumping jacks, jump roping, etc is not necessary.
Which leads me to my next point….
How much is too much?
Let me tell you a short story about myself to be the example.
At one point in my life I was 128 pounds. I had normally hovered between 112-116 my whole life and I felt my heaviest at 128.
I knew I had been eating too much and I was ready to get it off of me.
Young and obsessed with exercising, I had come home from my freshman year of college and decided to lose the weight the only way I knew how… exercising more to lose more weight.
But what happens when all of the sudden the one hour on the stairmaster isn’t working? Or the hour makes you more hungry?
Well, “I must do more,” I thought.
So, I would go do the stairmaster and then take a spin class.
But after a few weeks I still couldn’t get under 124-125 pounds…
“Dare I do a second spin class [in one day]?” I thought.
After all of the cardio came the hunger.
The more I did the more hungrier I became.
I was constantly hungry.
I would tell myself I had probably, most likely burned enough to eat another sandwich or another protein shake or more ezkiel bread.
And truth be told I was burning a lot; but eating more to fuel the workouts was going to make me a better endurance athlete, not a leaner person.
Always remember the goal.
The bottom line is that I was taking more time to tabulate my cardio minutes than I was to count my calories at this stage in my life. I thought as long as I ate healthy foods and exercised for over 90 minutes I would lose weight.
Your takeaway: If your goal is fat loss calories should come first. You will know when you are doing too much exercise because you will feel super hungry and like it’s impossible to hit your calorie guidelines for the day. Sustainable fat loss requires a realistic deficit. If you are consistently creating a larger deficit for yourself via hours of exercise on top of a diet deficit it will make you feel like crap and hit a wall. Pick one goal and work for it.
What type of workout is best?
If someone told me years ago that I could just lift weights four times a week and get leaner, I would’ve said, “Yeah, thanks; but no way,” in disbelief.
I wish I had believed it back then because I would have saved so many hours of time on that damn stairmaster.
Flashforward to today and I am coaching people with these same questions and thoughts.
If you want to lose weight you must put your calories and protein first.
If you want to shape your shoulders, tone your legs, build your booty and shape your arms you need to do sometime of strength/ resistance training two to four times a week.
What exactly do I mean by strength training?
This means you are training with some type of resistance or weights to stress the muscles.
TRX bands, jump-stretch bands, kettlebells, dumbbells, and your on bodyweight on a pull-up bar are all examples of tools to use.
If you are training to get strong, (and not necessary bigger muscles), you can plan to do sets of 4 to 6 repetitions of various exercises two to four times a week and see results.
Forty-five minutes to an hour is enough time to do enough muscular damage to make strides.
If you enjoy cardio it is an excellent way to boost the deficit.
If you enjoy sweating, have at it!
Remember that cardio will not sculpt you.
With regards to exercising for fat loss, doing cardio like spinning, running, and sprinting can help you create a bigger deficit which helps if you happen to eat slightly more than you should, but it is not required if nutrition is in check.
The beauty of strength training is that the type of damage done to the muscles is damage that takes calories and extra energy to repair for hours after you exercise.
Even better, muscle is more metabolically active on the body, meaning it takes more energy to fuel a body with more muscle.
Therefore if you build strength (and have muscle) you can essentially eat more and maintain your weight. Or, eat the same amount and use more calories simply living than you would without the muscle.
As mentioned, for strength purposes you do not need to lift every day to get stronger. And in fact, doing so could inhibit your ability to gain more strength.
The first rule for strength training to get results is to be consistent with a plan that occurs two to four days a week.
Then I have come up with four major tips for beginners:
1) Make a schedule and stick to it.
Be realistic. If you are new to lifting weights, agreeing to lift four times a week might be a stretch. If you are a busy person trying to lift four times a week and not making it into the gym could set yourself up to feel like you’ve failed if you don’t go.
Be consistent with your training because it will help you stay consistent with your nutrition over a week long basis. Remember nutrition comes first for fat loss, so make a schedule that will not force you to alter your eating habits too much.
2) Understand what muscle groups you are working.
If you go to a workout class and don’t really pay attention you could set yourself for injuries or over-use if the next day you are working out again. For example, if you do jumping lunges in part of the class on a Monday, those could very well affect your ability to squat heavy the next day.
If you are on a strength program you will know strategically what you are doing.
In example, Monday and Thursday could be lower body workouts. Then Friday and Sunday could be upper body workouts. Or if you train total body three times a week make sure you hit all areas of the body each time.
This way you can balance out the exertion of all of your muscles and give them time under tension and recovery time.
If you do pull-ups every day, as many reps as possible, you will be fatigued. It is hard to make the muscle stronger when it doesn’t get time to recover.
3) Make sure keep track of what you are doing in the gym, push yourself each time, and eat accordingly.
A great reason to follow a plan is so that each time you go into the gym you can do something your body is familiar with, but yet intensify the stressor slightly so that change occurs. If you enjoy group fitness classes you can still achieve this, you just have to pay attention more when you are in class.
One way to do this is to go to the same instructor regularly.
Another way is to be sure to remember what you did. If you have been doing your 30 seconds sprints on a treadmill at a 9.0 speed, try taking it to a 9.3 after a week or two. If you have been doing overhead presses with a 15-pound dumbbell push yourself to pick up a 20-pound dumbbell the next time, it might just mean you cannot do as many reps.
One more thing…
For some of us, nutrition and exercise feed off of one another.
My friend and client Sheehan is the perfect example. Like many of us, exercise is what started Sheehan’s journey.
Getting up a little before 5:00 a.m. every morning to have a fun, exciting workout is what motivated her to change her body.
After seeing huge initial progress the exercise became a lifestyle. She is the perfect example of how exercise and achievements in the gym can be the sole motivation to work on nutrition. After her first leap forward in fat loss, she reached out to me for some help. You can see from the photos that in just four weeks with me (her “before” photos were taken June 8th), she broke through her plateau and continues to lean out as we speak.
If exercise is your motivation or your fun social hour like it is for me, there is nothing wrong with doing some type of a workout each day.
However be careful not to use that one hour or rely solely on that hour for fat loss. Do not force yourself to do something you don’t enjoy, something that will make you feel bad or overly hungry, or work through injuries.
Keep track of what exercises you do, make it measurable so you can keep making progress!
The bottom line is that movement matters for general health.
Standard, moderately paced cardio can be fun, social and an excellent way to relieve stress.
However, when it comes to fat loss exercise can help but should not be used as the primary tool to lose fat.
There are several ways exercise can actually inhibit your fat loss progress.
Remember, being athletic is great and fun but if fat loss is the goal you do not need to train like a professional athlete to look good naked.
And for strength gains, train two to four times a week and eat accordingly for results.