“Train the body, don’t drain the body” is an adage often touted by experienced personal trainers. What this means is that exercise should add energy and life to your body – not take it away. But how do you know when you’re doing enough, versus too much or too little?
When we exercise, we tear down muscle tissues. The benefit of exercise comes during the recovery afterwards, when muscle cells can rebuild stronger and in greater quantities than before.
How often you work out depends on a number of factors, all very personal and individualized to you. Ultimately, it’s a function of how long your body needs to recover from your last exercise session before going into the next one.
Exercising without allowing for proper recovery has many negatives. For one, it’s usually painful! If your muscles are screaming because you’re doing heavy squats for the third day in a row, there’s something wrong. Constant demand placed on a muscle without giving it time to heal and rebuild is ultimately a recipe for injury as tissues break down and eventually strain or tear. Other side effects of overwork without adequate recovery are excess fatigue, lack of motivation, and frequent colds.
Factors that increase recovery time include:
Nutrition and hydration: If you don’t supply the body with the proper nutritional building blocks, it won’t heal properly.
Exercise intensity: Long, hard exercise bouts require longer recovery than shorter ones.
Age: Ask anyone over 50 and they’ll tell you that the older you, the longer it takes to heal – from anything.
Forget “no pain, no gain”
This expression refers specifically to muscle, or physical pain – not the mental pain of getting up at 6:00AM to go work out!
Think of it also in terms of endurance pain – such as doing an hour of high-intensity cardio 6 days a week. This kind of pain leads to increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, which has a host of detrimental effects. [Read: More About Cortisol, the “Stress Hormone”]
While it’s certainly true that in order to improve, additional demands must be placed on the body. The body is an amazing machine that will quickly adapt to the demands we place upon it. If we don’t continue to challenge it, we “plateau.” [Read: The Five Biggest Exercise Myths]
So how often should you exercise?
There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The answer depends on the recovery factors described previously, as well as your unique fitness goals. However, here are some very general guidelines that apply to most people:
- Allow 24 to 48 hours of recovery between strength training sessions for specific muscle groups. One way to do this is to break up your weekly exercise program into sessions targeting specific body areas. “Leg day” can be followed by “arms and chest day” for example. The one exception to the rule is abdominal strength – these muscles can typically be worked once a day, every day. However, if you experience abdominal muscle soreness from doing so, then give these muscles enough recovery time as well.
- With endurance and cardio work, keep it moderate on most days, with one day of high intensity/short duration, and one day of low intensity/long duration each week.
- Practice “active recovery.” Although binge-watching Netflix on the couch sounds like an appealing way to recover, it’s actually far better to keep moving as a form of recovery. Activities like walking, easy cycling, yoga, and even housecleaning are all great forms of active recovery. Like the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man, you have to keep things oiled so they won’t freeze up. Staying in motion helps accelerate the healing process.
If you’re still unsure about how much to exercise and when, work with a certified personal trainer to help you structure a safe, progressive and effective exercise program that will get you to your goals.
Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) based in Greenwood Village, Colorado. She works with clients to help them live healthy and active lives and achieve their unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.