Move Empower Concierge Physical Therapy Austin TX
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Ask a Physical Therapist: How Hard Should I Exercise?

It’s one of the most-asked questions out there when it comes to overall health and wellness: Just how hard should I exercise? 


I understand why the question is asked so often. You want to make sure when you hit the gym and get that workout in, that it’s counting toward something. You want to make sure that it’s getting you closer to your goal.


But here’s the thing — I would first ask you to think about what that goal actually is. There are different answers based on whether you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle, work on flexibility, or simply stay heart-healthy.


How long should I exercise per day?

For the purpose of this blog, we’re going to stick with exercise intensity as it relates to staying heart-healthy. Did you know that the Department of Health and Human Services recommends the following guidelines for the majority of healthy adults?

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week (think walking, jogging, biking, or moderate swimming). If we put it into perspective, that’s about 30 minutes five days per week, or 50 minutes of exercise three times per week. 
  • You can also opt for 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. Activities that fall under this category include running or aerobic dancing. 
  • As a general rule, the more exercise you get, the better it is for your overall health and wellness — up to 300 minutes or more of aerobic activity per week.

As with all things, you don’t want to overdo it. Listen to your body. You will know if you’re working your body too hard and may experience symptoms such as mood swings, having trouble sleeping or, on the other hand, feeling tired all the time. You can also increase your risk of injury when over-exercising, so just pay close attention to your body and how you are feeling overall.


How often should I workout to build muscle?

When it comes to strength training, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends the following: 

  • Strength training for all major muscle groups at least twice per week. Some ways you can work your muscle groups is by using free weight, weight machines, or exercises that use your own body weight. Examples of using your own body weight include rock climbing and even gardening.
  • When working out at home or at a gym, as a general rule, you can aim to do a single set of each exercise that uses enough weight to tire your muscles out, and repeat the exercise for 12-15 reps.


How hard should you push yourself when exercising?

While there is a benefit for your overall health and wellbeing to work out multiple times per week at a moderate pace, a recent study out of the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at over 400,000 people and found that doing VIGOROUS activity is associated with higher reductions in death associated with cardiovascular and cancer.


Man and woman squatting with weights

How can I determine if I am doing “vigorous” exercise?

There are several ways you can differentiate between vigorous and moderate-level exercise. One of the easiest ways is to conduct a “talk test.” 


The Talk Test

If you are working out with a friend or partner, see how it feels to talk to them while you are exercising. If you are at a vigorous level, then it will be more difficult for you to speak to them; in fact, you will probably speak only a few words at a time.


On the other hand, if you are at a moderate pace, you may be able to hold a conversation a bit easier. For example, when you are going for a brisk walk with a friend you are more likely to be able to speak in full sentences.


Measure the MET

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) categorizes “vigorous” exercise as those activities that require over 6 metabolic equivalents (MET) of effort. During vigorous exercise, you are aiming to burn 7 kilocalories per minute.


Now, that might seem a bit confusing to you if you are unfamiliar with METS. If you are new to learning about MET and how much effort is required for your favorite sports and activities, a great place to start might be the Cornell University Ergonomics Web METS to Calories Calculator. By visiting that calculator, you can see what some of your favorite activities equal in terms of MET and the site also offers you a calculator to estimate how many metabolic equivalents you required during your last workout. This can help determine if you workout was considered vigorous (over 6) or moderate.


Monitor your heart rate

A third way to determine if your workout is considered vigorous or moderate is by monitoring your heart rate. A vigorous workout is defined by the American Heart Association (AHA) as when an individual has reached a heart rate of 70% to 85% of a person’s maximum heart rate during the activity. A person’s max heart rate varies by age and fitness level. However, there are heart rate zone calculators available for you to help determine what that number looks like for you.


man and woman running outdoors


Here’s how hard you should be working out per week

To wrap this article up, I’ll make everything really simple: To reap the protective benefits of exercise to prevent death, do your best to get in at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. Try your best to make the majority (50%-70%) of that 150 minutes of your exercise more vigorous. By vigorous, I mean perform exercise that increases your heart rate a bit. 


In order to increase the intensity of your workouts, you can try any of the following:

  • Add some hills to your daily walk
  • Try the interval training setting on your stationary bike or elliptical  
  • Incorporate supersets into your strength training sessions at the gym


One last overview of the benefits of vigorous activity

There are several benefits to increasing the intensity of your workouts. While getting an exercise at all throughout the week is great for your overall health, there is evidence that increasing the intensity can benefit you in one or more of the following ways:

  • Lowering your risk of chronic disease such as coronary heart disease, osteoporosis, and several different types of cancers
  • Increasing weight loss for those trying to lose weight, engaging in more vigorous activity can help you lose weight quicker and help keep it off, especially when combined with a healthy diet. More vigorous workouts can help burn more calories and make your workouts more efficient. Instead of spending longer amounts of time in the gym, you can opt for a more intense workout (such as a high-intensity interval training, or HIIT workout, which can blast more calories in a short amount of time).
  • Improving mood: vigorous workouts can help your body release “feel good” hormones that help reduce stress and anxiety, and boost mood if you’re feeling down.


Here’s how you can get started in your journey to better health

Do you have more questions about how hard you should be working out? Are you curious about how to add some healthy VIGOR to your workout?


If you’re ready to bring your workout regimen to the next level, feel free to contact one of our mobile physical therapists HERE or call our specialist physical therapists at 512-659-5615


Disclaimer: You should always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen.

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