How long should a workout last? It seems like a question that should have a straightforward answer, but the truth is, there isn’t one. You could spend as little as four minutes on a workout: “There is no minimum,” says Marie Urban, regional group training coordinator for Life Time. “You can get a great workout no matter how much time you have.” Or, you could grind away for hours.
How long you spend working up a sweat is entirely dependent on your goals, personal preferences and the time you have available.
How long you spend working up a sweat is entirely dependent on your goals, personal preferences and the time you have available. Even if you take your goals into consideration, it can be tricky to determine a set workout length, as there are benefits to exercising for any length of time.
SHORT DURATION, HIGH INTENSITY
For example, if you’re trying to build aerobic and anaerobic fitness, you can accomplish that in only four short-but-intense minutes of work. How? Through a popular form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) known as Tabata training.
Tabata training involves performing a cardio-focused exercise (e.g., sprints or burpees) as many times as you can for 20 seconds before stopping for a 10-second rest, and repeating for a total of eight rounds.
Even traditional strength training offers benefits in the briefest of sessions. A recent study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reveals young men who lifted weights for only 13 minutes per session three days per week made similar strength gains in eight weeks as men who spent 68 minutes in the gym three days per week. The only catch: Subjects performed all sets to failure, or the point at which they couldn’t do another rep with good form. So, there was no slacking here.
It’s worth noting this study included only 34 subjects, and the men had previous experience with strength training; whether the results would apply to new lifters, women or older adults remains to be seen.
GO LONGER FOR MORE RESULTS
In addition, the shorter training sessions weren’t as effective for increasing muscle size (also known as hypertrophy) as the longer sessions. As researchers note, higher training volumes are key for achieving muscle hypertrophy, and higher training volumes require a greater time commitment.
Still, the group that did 13-minute sessions gained some muscle, suggesting you may be able to get away with a quick workout from time to time. However, you would have to continue adding sets, reps and/or exercises if you wanted to continue seeing progress. According to the findings of a 2017 meta-analysis, adding one set each week was associated with an increase in the percentage of muscle gain by 0.37%. As you continue adding sets, reps and/or exercises, your training sessions inevitably take longer to complete.
If you’re training for a specific event (e.g., marathon, bodybuilding competition), your training sessions will likely vary in length as you near your event date, and may include sessions that err on the longer side (60 minutes or more). In these instances, it’s a good idea to work with a fitness professional and/or follow a quality training program, as opposed to trying to come up with your own workouts.
DAILY ACTIVITY MATTERS
By the way, your daily activity level is perhaps more important to your overall health than working out for a set period of time. Research even shows being sedentary can limit the positive effects of exercise. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there’s a strong relationship between sedentary behavior and risk of death from any cause, as well as death from heart disease.
Urban recommends squeezing activity into your day wherever you can: Park far away from the store, take the stairs instead of the elevator, do pushups while you microwave food and crank out some situps during commercial breaks. “Having an active lifestyle is more important than working out for an hour every day,” she says.