As a personal trainer with many clients in London, including online clients, I obviously get asked this question a lot. Most face to face clients train with me once a week, and the first thing I make clear to them is that 1 hour a week is not enough exercise! So I give them exercise homework to do in-between our weekly sessions, and advise them on how to build more activity into their every-day lives.
My philosophy is that you should aim for total fitness. This means view your health and fitness in a holistic way, so you cover all aspects of your fitness.
The amount and type and intensity of exercise you should do each week depends on several factors like your age, current health (chronic medical conditions etc), current fitness levels, your goals (weight loss, weight gain, muscle growth, sports performance), and your time constraints.
There are 7 elements of fitness I think you should focus on every week:
1. Moderate-intensity cardiovascular fitness
This is the most basic low-level element of fitness we should all be able to achieve with ease. The Department of Health (see NHS Choices website) recommends at least 150 minutes moderate intensity aerobic activity per week, which can be broken up into 10 minute bursts through the day.
Personally I think this is too little. At least 210 minutes a week is a better goal, which is 30 minutes a day. And you should avoid being sedentary for too long at a time, so avoid sitting for too long, whether it’s on the couch, at your desk, in a car, or on a plane/train/tube/bus.
What counts as moderate intensity exercise? Brisk walking is a good example, brisk enough to increase your rate of breathing, but you can still hold a conversation (known in the fitness industry as the ‘talk test’). Also cycling, climbing stairs, and other every-day activities like housework.
As for reducing the time you spend sitting during the day, try some of these tips: stand up in the tube, walk up and down the aisle in trains and planes, exercise in front of the TV rather than lounging on the couch, and sit on a swissball (stability ball) at work, or stand behind your desk.
The NHS website adds a further word of advice if you’re overweight: “to lose weight you are likely to need more than 150 minutes a week, and make changes to your diet.” I would say that you particularly need to do more of the muscle-building exercises if you’re overweight, see below.
2. Vigorous cardiovascular exercise
This is exercise like jogging (but not too slowly), playing sport, hard cycling. You should sustain it for 20 minutes without a break, but not be able to hold a conversation. This gets your heart and lungs fit in a way that moderate intensity cannot. Three times a week would be my recommendation.
A more fun and varied way of achieving cardiovascular fitness is HITT, high intensity interval training, bursts of very intense exercise for one minute, then one minute recovery, and keep alternating like this for 20 minutes. There are many variations of the ratio of activity/recovery, and which exercises you do. More about this in a later blog.
The NHS website says that 30 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (aerobic exercise means the same as cardiovascular exercise) is worth the same as 60 minutes moderate aerobic exercise, so you can do a combination of the two.
3. Muscle-strengthening exercise
As a personal trainer I advise my clients to do muscle-strengthening exercise sessions 3 times a week, but not on consecutive days, to give your muscles a chance to repair and grow. The NHS website advises 2 or more days a week, but 2 sessions is too little in my view.
The benefit of muscle-building exercise is that it raises your metabolic rate 24 hours a day, which burns more excess fat in the long run. It also makes you stronger, which has multiple benefits for avoiding injury (and getting out of danger) whenever you need to exert more physical force. And your body will look better too!
The best way to strengthen your muscles is to train with weights in a gym, or at home. You can also use body-weight exercises like pushups (same thing as pressups). 40 minutes to 1 hour is the best duration for muscle building workouts, but if time is short, 20 minutes is better than none at all.
4. Stretching for flexibility
Flexibility is an important and often overlooked aspect of your fitness, particularly as you get older. You should stretch your muscles at the end of all your intensive cardiovascular exercise/sports, and also at the end of any muscle-building exercise.
Stretch each muscle you’ve exercised, and hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds, ideally 1 minute for more stubborn muscles such as hamstrings and calves. Set aside at least 10 minutes for stretching.
5. Bone-building exercise
For strong and healthy bones, you need to put them under stress, to maintain bone-density. Running achieves this for your leg bones, and boxing or sparring with a personal trainer helps build your upper body bone strength. All my personal training clients in London ‘enjoy’ an element of boxing during their workouts.
Bone-building is a great insurance policy for later life. Strong bones in old age will keep you more healthy and independent for longer, and you’re less likely to fracture a bone if you fall.
6. Core strength exercise
Your core comprises your abdominal muscles and lower back muscles. A strong core guards against injury, particularly to your lower back and spine. A strong flat stomach also looks good. If you play any sport, a strong core is vital to transfer force through your body safely.
7. Balance and proprioception exercise
This becomes increasingly important the older you get. The NHS website emphasises this in its section on exercise for over 65’s, and recommends balance/co-ordination exercise at least twice a week. It recommends things like dancing, yoga, tai-chi.
Older people lose their sense of balance and co-ordination, and this is a major cause of falls and fractures. With regular practice, you can reduce the trend towards reduced balance and co-ordination into advanced old age. It’s as much a mental training as physical.
The greater your core strength (and flexibility too), the better your balance will be. Exercise equipment like stability balls, wobble boards, bosu-balls, all help you boost your balance. Just standing on one leg and timing yourself is a great method to improve your balance. Don’t forget to do the same on the other leg too!
Proprioception means your ability to balance and co-ordinate your body through ranges of movement and also being able to hold your body still in different positions. It’s very much a mind/body skill, where you have a heightened awareness of your body in space and time, and your control over its movements.
What if I don’t have time for all this exercise?
The majority of people in the UK don’t even do the minimum recommended levels of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, let alone all the other elements. This is one of the main reasons why there is so much illness and disease in this country, and lack of independence in old age.
The main reason given for not exercising enough is lack of time. But this is largely an excuse. Even the busiest person can fit exercise into their life. You can walk part of the way to and from work. You can find 20 minutes three times a week to do some interval training in your lounge without even taking your eyes off the television, then do a stretch at the end. You can also do some pushups and core exercises in the bedroom or in front of the TV.
If you genuinely are working so many hours that you cannot even follow the tips in the paragraph above, you seriously need to reduce those hours, or you’ll work yourself into an early grave, and suffer a much reduced quality of life in the years leading up to it.
What if I’m too tired (or too ill/injured/disabled) to exercise?
This is a huge question, and needs a separate blog post to do it justice. Meanwhile, please leave a comment in the comments section below. I want to hear your views!
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London with over 10 years experience.