Sticking with a workout routine can be challenging on its own. But when you’re going through a period of transition or high stress, it can be even more difficult to start or maintain an exercise habit. That’s why the concept of the minimum effective dose (MED) of exercise is especially useful in today’s landscape.
Most of us are familiar with this term when it comes to medications, says K. Aleisha Fetters, certified strength and conditioning specialist, author of “Give Yourself MORE.” For example, if you have a headache, you might take a certain amount of pain reliever, perhaps one capsule. That would be the minimum effective dose for relief from your headache pain.
When it comes to exercise, the minimum effective dose refers to the least amount of work needed to see a given result, explains Kelley Vargo, MPH, an ACE master trainer and health coach. The minimum effective dose is relative to your goal. For example, if your goal is to improve your cardiovascular fitness, you might need a minimum of two 30-minutes runs per week to see an uptick in your performance.
This is especially relevant now because whether it’s stress or circumstance (i.e., gyms are closed), “We’re all under increased mental and emotional stress, and sometimes the healthiest thing can be recalibrating our physical exertion based on how we’re doing as a whole person,” Fetters says. “Exercise can be a way to positively influence overall health, but too much, especially when we’re stressed and tired can just make things worse.”
More exercise isn’t necessarily better. There are several reasons you might want to utilize the MED concept with your workouts right now.
“All stress is cumulative: physical, mental and emotional,” Fetters says. While working out is good for you, it is a form of physical stress. “The stress you’re under in any one area affects how much stress your body is able to handle in the other two areas,” she explains. Too much physical stress from exercise without adequate recovery can not only impact mental and emotional health, but it could also impact other areas of your physical health, like immunity.
“Now more than ever, it’s important to employ strategies to manage stress, reduce inflammation and support recovery and immune function,” says Justin Fauci, NASM-certified personal trainer, co-founder of Caliber Fitness. Minimum effective dose is one strategy for doing just that.
“Shorter doesn’t mean less effective,” points out Kia Khadem, a clinical exercise physiologist, nutritionist and personal trainer. “Time-efficient or minimalist workouts allow you to stay consistent, continue with your fitness goals, get results and continue to build that consistency-muscle in your brain without you having to rearrange your life to make it work.”
“We often get stuck in an all-or-nothing mindset,” Khadem points out. For instance, “If I can’t work out for a whole hour, what’s the point?”
But, implementing the minimum effective dose of exercise can help emphasize something is always better than nothing. “A 10–15-minute workout, done 3–4 days per week, every week beats the perfect workout program that is done once in a while.”
Unlike with medications, the minimum effective dose of exercise is slightly different for everyone depending on a variety of individual factors: age, height, body composition, genetics, goals and more.
Targeting the sweet spot between “not enough” and “just enough” exercise can be tricky. It’s likely it’ll take some trial and error to figure out the right balance, but here’s what can help you get started.
“First and foremost, listen to your body,” Fetters recommends. “Are you sore? Tired? Feeling more energetic?” These are all important clues about how your body is responding to the stress of your workout routine and the other stresses in your life. If you feel sore and exhausted, that could be a sign to back off. If you’re feeling more vibrant than ever, you’re more likely getting close to your MED.
Fitness trackers can also be helpful. By keeping track of your exercise dose on days and weeks when you feel really energetic and making progress toward your goals, you can get a grasp of what feels “just right,” Fetters says. “In time, you’ll zero in on what works for you.”
Often, the best way to gauge your sweet spot is to try out a workout schedule and see how it goes. After about two weeks, Fauci recommends taking stock of recovery and progress indicators like:
- Sleep quality
- Physical energy outside of workouts
- Resting heart rate (RHR)
- Appetite and digestion
- Muscle soreness
If these markers above are suffering, you are very likely exceeding your minimum effective dose. “Depending on severity, you can either pull back training volume (less sets, lower weight, less sessions) or take a few days off completely,” Fauci says. “On the other hand, if you are not seeing progress toward your goal, whether that be on the scale, in photos or with performance, you should look to increase the ‘dose.’”
Your specific goal plays a role in the calculation as well. Here’s what to keep in mind for the most common fitness goals.
“According to the American College of Sports Medicine, 1–2 days of exercise is effective when it comes to maintaining strength, keeping the rep range around 8–12,” Khadem says. So ideally, you want to use a weight that makes it feel challenging to complete 8–12 repetitions.
“You really need to work each muscle group at least two times per week to continue making strength or hypertrophy gains,” Fetters says. “Once per week, and you’re going to have so much time between stressing and recovering and stressing again that you miss out on the supercompensation effect [where you have a temporarily higher work capacity].”
“Exercise is not the most effective tool for weight loss,” Vargo says. Usually, nutrition changes are needed, too. “Metabolic conditioning workouts are great for fat loss, as well as being short and efficient,” she adds. How often you need to exercise to reach your weight-loss goals depends on how much you exercise currently.
“If you’re starting from zero, two 30-minute sessions a week might be enough to see changes in body fat,” Fauci says.
Your best bet for better health is to refer to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, Vargo says. “According to these, adults should get in 150–300 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity per week for health benefits, and at least two days a week of total body strength training.” That translates to a minimum of three 50-minute moderate-intensity workouts or three 25-minute vigorous-intensity workouts.