How much sport should you do a week?

While some people train till they drop, others only find time to pull on their running shoes once a week. How much sport is good for you – and what’s the most efficient way to train?

Author: Julie Freudiger, photo: tbd

Do you need to train two hours a day or is it enough to do sports once a week? And what’s better: Long and moderate training or short and intensive? If you had a penny for every new training programme that came onto the market, you’d be rich. To get straight to the point: there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. “To be healthy, it’s generally advisable to incorporate regular moderate to intensive exercise in your daily routine. How many times a week you should ideally train depends on your goal, fitness level and time available,” agrees Manuel Coimbra, sports scientist and personal trainer. However, there are a few points to bear in mind to make your training effective, efficient and, above all, sustainably healthy. Answers to six questions on training duration and intensity.

How much sport is healthy? 

Exercise is proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and depression, as well as improving heart and lung performance. If you’re training to stay healthy, you should exercise moderately for at least two and a half hours a week. This includes any everyday activities or sport where you breathe slightly faster than normal. Alternatively, you could do 75 minutes of intensive sport a week. These are the recommendations of the Swiss Federal Office of Sport and the World Health Organisation WHO. Researchers at Harvard University have published a study showing that 150 minutes of exercise a week reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 14%.

Is it sufficient to train once a week?

People who only do sport at the weekend are known as weekend warriors. “However, if you want to build up muscle, improve your stamina or lose weight, you should train at least three, possibly even four times a week,” says Manuel Coimbra. If you don’t have much time, Manuel recommends that you do “exercise snacks”. “These are several short sequences of exercises of 15 to 20 minutes which raise the heart rate and target specific muscles with a few strength exercises, such as jumping jacks, push-ups and air squats. You can do these short sessions between meetings or in your lunch break.” It’s better to spread sporting activities over the week instead of trying to pack everything into one training session.

Can I make up for a lack of time by increasing the intensity?

Numerous studies have shown that short, high-intensity interval training has the same effect as longer, moderate jogging. These findings are backed up by a study conducted at the McMaster University in Ontario: one group trained at a moderate pace for 45 minutes at a time, while the other only exercised for ten minutes, alternating between very slow two-minute units and 20-second sprints. The high-intensity load lasted only one minute overall. The result: both groups improved their endurance by almost 20%. It’s no wonder that high intensity interval training (HIIT) is currently so popular. A HIIT workout includes elements of endurance and strength, and the exercises are repeated several times at short but very intensive intervals.

How much sport is too much?

“Generally speaking, very sporty people can train up to as many as six times a week,” says Manuel – provided they plan in sufficient time for recovery. If you try to do too much, you run the risk of injury, feel exhausted and tired, and won’t get anywhere with your training. Sufficient sleep and a good diet are key to successful training. Furthermore, your weekly sporting activities need to fit with your daily routine: “If you’re already stressed at work, I wouldn’t recommend trying to train at a high intensity four times a week.” It’s all about finding a good balance. “You have to learn to listen to your body. If you’re tired out and have painful muscles, you should rest for another day or at least train at a lower intensity,” says Manuel. 

How much strength training should I do a day?

It’s a mistake to think that lifting heavy weights for as long as possible will help you build up muscle. An effective whole-body workout can be completed in 30 to 40 minutes. It’s a matter of quality over quantity: The best way to work out successfully and healthily is to do the movements correctly. If you start to lose form, you’ve probably reached your limit. In fact, variety is the key to long-term training success: If the body always receives the same stimulus – the same running route or training programme – it will remain in its current state after an initial improvement. The good news: “If you have a balanced training plan and do the exercises properly, it’s only a matter of time until you get a six-pack.

How long do I have to exercise to lose weight?

Regardless of your goal, Manuel recommends exercising three to four times a week. If your primary goal is to lose weight, it’s a good idea to do HIIT workouts combining endurance and strength, because more muscles burn more calories – even at rest. Stress, however, is counterproductive. And many beginners fall into this trap. “If you try to do too much and push your body too hard while being stressed at work, you won’t achieve your goal in the long term and may possibly even put on weight.” If you don’t plan in sufficient recovery time, your body can’t break down the stress hormone cortisol – and this stimulates it to build up fat reserves. 

Manuel Coimbra’s training tips

  1. No matter whether your aim is to improve your stamina, strength or appearance, if you want to make progress you have to train at least three to four times a week. 
  2. Align the intensity of your training to your daily workload: How’s your working week shaping up? Are you already stressed? Do you have enough time to recover?
  3. Recovery, sufficient sleep and a good diet are key to training success. You need to plan time for all these things. 
  4. Know your limits and listen to your body: Am I rested and ready for my next training session, or do I need more rest and active regeneration?
  5. The quality of movement is most important. Only increase the intensity once you have the movement right. This way, you’ll stay injury free and achieve your goals in the long term. It’s a good idea to consult an expert now and again to make sure you’re doing the exercises properly. 
  6. Optische Ziele können kurzfristig motivierend sein. Langfristig stellt man aber besser die Gesundheit und ein positives Körpergefühl in den Vordergrund. Bewegung sollte zur Gewohnheit werden – ein wesentlicher Bestandteil eines gesunden Lebensstils.

Manuel Coimbra studied sports and health sciences, and also trained as a sports teacher. He works as an independent personal trainer and coach at Balboa Move in Zurich.