How Much Exercise Do We Really Need?

Is it just me, or does it feel like fitness influencers are a little excessive?

I don’t mean the way they market themselves, or share on social media. (I follow quite a few of them for new ideas!) No, I mean the message they’re preaching, the workout plans they’re endorsing, and the recommendations they make about how much exercise a person really needs to be healthy. A question came up recently that I’ve been chewing on for a while, and I wanted to discuss on the blog a bit today. It’s the question of how much?

A few days ago, a patient came into the office who had the chief complaint of painful periods. When I asked her about her exercise habits, she said something along the lines of: “Well, I used to work out five days a week for 45 minutes, and since quarantine started I’ve been really stressed, so now it’s only maybe 3 days a week. But I know it’s not enough…”

Later that day I was talking about exercise with a colleague, and he lamented that he has a hard time having conversations with patients about this subject. “They always ask how much is enough, and then ask me how much I work out,” he started, “But I’m a lifelong athlete, and power lifting is my hobby. If I told them how much I exercise, they’d freak out and not work out at all! But they don’t need to be doing what I do…”

He’s absolutely right. We don’t need to work out five days a week for nearly an hour in order to be healthy. We don’t all need to be power lifters in order to be healthy. Can you do those things and still be healthy, yes! Of course! But it’s not necessary.

How much is enough?

In this post, I shared some thoughts about the point of exercise, what it does for our health, and why it’s important that each of us finds a way to fit joyful movement into our days. I encourage you to check out the original post, but generally speaking, exercise helps keep our muscles strong and limber so we can move freely throughout our lives. It keeps joints fluid and pain-free, and in moderation, helps reduce the stress response in our bodies. The point of exercise is not to control our bodies, to compensate for eating food, or to make us more valuable, though it’s often seen that way.

Exercising to whittle away fat, burn away the calories we consume, or to train for athletics requires an enormous amount of time, energy, and effort–far more than necessary to promote health. We don’t all need to be fitness models or train for marathons. We don’t need to spend hours upon hours in the gym each week. But there are so many conflicting pieces of fitness advice floating around cyberspace that it sometimes feels like if we aren’t doing all of them we aren’t doing enough. The comparison game is so, very unhelpful.

In general, the amount of exercise that constitutes “enough” for each individual person really depends. Some people thrive with more movement, and some with less. That’s okay. Likewise, some people are passionate about hobbies that involve physical activity, so they mentally thrive when they physically push themselves more. That’s okay, too.

A good rule of thumb that I use to start the conversation about “enoughness” in terms of exercise is this:

  • If you are completely sedentary on most days, that’s not enough.
  • If you feel worse after exercise, that’s probably too much, in terms of duration, intensity, or frequency.
  • If you feel groggy, lethargic, and stiff in your joints, when you bend down, and when you climb the stairs, you might not be exercising enough.
  • If you feel sore, achy, and ill during or shortly after exercise, you might be exercising too much in terms of duration, intensity, or frequency.
  • If starting a movement (the first few minutes of a walk, run, or exercise program) feels extremely uncomfortable to you and that feeling doesn’t go away, you might not be exercising enough.
  • If you feel extremely uncomfortable when you rest and recline, you might be exercising too much, period.

Too much exercise…

I have been involved in sports for all my life, but I fell into a pattern of exercising way too much when my eating disorder started. I came to resent exercise, but felt guilty for skipping it. It didn’t feel good in my body, my knees were always sore, I was constantly exhausted, I wasn’t getting my period, and my digestion was completely disrupted (constantly gassy, bloated, and dealing with constipation). I didn’t recognize that some of these feelings were tied to the frequency/intensity/duration of my exercise until I stopped exercising altogether for a few months, and gave up running for nearly two years. Throughout that process, I slowly started experimenting with other forms of exercise, and learned for the first time what “joyful movement” meant:

  • a pickup game of soccer or tennis
  • a long walk with a podcast, a friend, or my own thoughts
  • a yoga class
  • an exercise DVD

I learned what balance means in terms of exercise for me and my body through trial and error. But in order to figure that out, moving my body couldn’t be about changing my body or “earning” my food, but rather about the positive feelings during and after the experience.

When I’m exercising in a balanced way, and not too much, I feel refreshed and energized. It’s easy for me to get up and get going throughout my day. When I’m in a pattern of exercising regularly, I find that I crave movement when I go too long without it, and so I take short walks throughout my day to clear my head, get my blood pumping, and help me stay focused.

When I’m exercising too much, I never want to get up or get moving. I crave sitting and laying down, and groan when I have to stand up. Sometimes even walking the short distance from my desk to the bathroom feels like a burden.

For most people, “enough exercise” means getting up and moving around pretty much every day. If someone is generally active throughout the day, on their feet at work, or chasing small children, the amount of formal exercise needed to promote health and feel good is much less than if someone is mostly sedentary. If a person has a desk job and few opportunities to take walks during the day, they probably would need to formally exercise more frequently to maintain their wellbeing.

For most people, about 20-30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a few times a week, when combined with a more-or-less active lifestyle (walking throughout the day) is plenty. For women especially, anything beyond this can quickly wreak havoc on hormonal balance, send cortisol into overdrive, and create all kinds of health problems. Unless a person is a competitive athlete, or higher intensity exercise is a passion-driven hobby (rather than an eating disorder-driven obsession), I recommend that my patients keep daily exercise–that is, formal workouts–to fewer than 30 minutes per day. Ideally, there would be a few rest days thrown in there, too.

Too little exercise…

During the first few weeks of my exercise hiatus (described above), I felt great. I had never gone that long without working out in my life, and my body really needed it! But after a month or two, I started noticing discomfort. I’d lost a lot of flexibility, and it felt really uncomfortable to bend down and pick things up. I also felt an unpleasant sort of fatigue after walking up a few flights of stairs.

Because my exercise break was for the sake of my health, I was reluctant to jump back into any formal sort of working out. I knew I needed healing. But I also didn’t feel very well. So, I started taking walks when I felt antsy or stiff, and I walked until I felt energized. The walks started getting longer and longer because I started to notice that I felt even more energized on some days, if I kept going. I eventually fell into a pattern of a daily walks, and each evening, I just walked until it stopped feeling good.

I didn’t pace, or measure my distance at all, but I had a general idea of the amount of time I spent walking…anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes. Sometimes I walked faster, and sometimes more slowly. It depended on how it felt in my body. Sometimes I walked a bit too far and felt fatigued afterwards. Most days I felt great.

As I reached a healthier place, mentally and physically, I started experimenting with those other types of exercise. If I was tired and sore from it the next day, I’d notice my walk would be shorter. The same was true if I had a day where I was up on my feet and moving around a lot. By the evening, walking a lot didn’t feel great, so I walked less. It just naturally happened like that. But each day, I gave myself the space and the opportunity to move my body, and each day, my body communicated back to me. Throughout this process, I gained attunement skills: being able to recognize when my body needs to move, and when it needs to rest.

Attunement and Gentle Movement

My goal for every patient and every client is to foster this sense of attunement. I want everyone to experience the joy and freedom of being able to trust their bodies, honor their need for both rest and movement, and enjoy the process of doing so. I no longer see exercise as a “calorie burner” and I’m so glad, because that was such a hellish experience to live. Instead, it’s something that gives me life.

What’s your relationship with exercise like?


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