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What is the minimum you need to exercise to be fit?

When beginning your fitness journey, you need to know what your goal is, and what is the minimum amount of exercise you need to do to reach it

How much exercise do you need?(Istockphoto)

By Pulasta Dhar

LAST PUBLISHED 22.12.2023  |  08:00 AM IST

The first question someone asks when they’re being inducted into the world of workouts, is how much they have to exercise. This includes for how long to exercise per day, and for how many days per week, and so on. The answers will probably define how many years they can do it for. Even though the benefits of exercise are the most researched and proven, it is the most difficult thing to start and get consistent with. 

Fitness is like a drug they say, so there has to be a minimum effective dose for it to have any effect on the human body. Oxford Dictionary defines ‘minimum effective dosage’ as, “the smallest dosage of a particular drug that produces a specified effect in an organism. Also called minimal effective dosage." But can this principle really be applied to exercise?

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Turns out, that algorithms can figure out how old you are, before sending you the pick of the internet’s articles. So while still half a decade away from being 40, it sent me a Medium piece which said, Looking Better Than 99% Of People Over 40 Is About One Thing, written by trainer Chris Davidson, who calls himself “a lifestyle coach for fed-up, out-of-shape Over-40s". His answer was figuring out the minimum amount of exercise needed over a year to look good. It broke down workouts into a mathematical formula, suggesting that it was better to do two workouts per week, for 52 weeks (104 Workouts), than five workouts per week for six weeks, three times a year (90 Workouts). 

This obviously depends on how much time said person has. Generally, people in their 40s might have a slew of life responsibilities which could be greater than or different to someone younger. The motivation might be lower as well, which makes the two workouts per week for 52 weeks, the perfect sales pitch for those who want to get fitter. It also depends, as it always does, on the goals. Not every middle-aged person is out of shape. Some might be wanting to get back into a fitness regime. Some might want to get stronger and chase a 1RM (the one-rep max, something I wrote on early last year in a Lounge piece titled, The Science Behind Testing Your Strength With The 1-Rep Max), some might want to get faster, some might just want to get toned. 

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“Some athletes might require high levels of purposeful training. An Olympic swimmer hoping to shave a tenth of a second off her 50-meter freestyle, for example, might need three hours of exercise a day. But for most people who want to build strength for a healthy everyday life, three workouts of 30 to 60 minutes each week is often sufficient," states an Experience Life article titled, When It Comes To Exercise, What Is The Minimum Effective Dose? 

The minimum effective dose of exercise will depend on three main parameters: increasing strength, mobility, and endurance. A combination of these three is the perfect fitness routine. It would encompass some resistance training, some activation and mobility routines, and cardio or HIIT work. 

A review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research titled, Maintaining Physical Performance: The Minimal Dose Of Exercise Needed To Preserve Endurance And Strength Over Time states that, “for muscle size, the minimal frequency of exercise necessary to maintain adaptations may depend on the age of subjects. In younger subjects (∼20–35 year old), as little as 1 session of strength training per week seems sufficient to maintain muscle size, whereas in older subjects (∼60–75 year old)... we conservatively recommend performing resistance training on two sessions per week to maintain muscle size, as this frequency has previously been shown to be effective."

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And what about speed? This is a more complicated subject because speed work requires rest, a measurement of the various stress levels you are facing, and a careful consideration of progression. But for those who think that fitness is tough to get into, would be happy to know that conservative approaches work better than shocking the body if the plan is long-term. 

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“Try a low-volume plan and assess your body’s response before you add extra workouts or attempt high-volume training. As you get fitter, intensity and volume will inevitably need to increase for you to continue improving, but always pay close attention to your body. If the dose response curve levels off and fatigue outpaces recovery, you’ve gone too far," states a brilliant TrainerRoad.com article, written by cycling expert Sean Hurley, titled, Minimum Effective Dose: How Much Should You Train To Get Faster?

In the end, if you want to check the basic World Health Organisation guidelines, they suggest a simple enough starting point: that adults perform 2.5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity, 1.25 hours of vigorous-intensity (or a combination of both) and muscle-strength training twice a week targeting the major muscle groups. So there you have it, now start working out!

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.

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