What Is The Minimum Effective Amount Of Exercise?

The most common reason for not successfully adhering to workout programmes...

"I don't have enough time".

Yes, everybody is busy...

Work, social commitments, family, downtime etc are all important, and will always take up the bulk of your available time.

But when you say "I don't have time to exercise", what you are really saying, is "It's not a priority".

You are basically saying that all of those other commitments are more important than your own health & fitness...

Do you really believe that?

And it's also important to remember that those other "priorities" will suffer when your health deteriorates anyway.

So instead of simply giving up... what can you do to "fit in" exercise?

And do you really need to feel under pressure to adhere to the guideline activity levels?

Either the "official guidelines" or those that you have simply assumed that you should be doing?

If you are genuinely struggling to find time for exercise...

And you have fallen into the "all or nothing mindset" trap...

Consider the following...

Physical Activity: The Official Guidelines

Below is the official advice for UK adults (UK Government & NHS)...


"Adults should:

- aim to be physically active every day. Any activity is better than none, and more is better still

- do strengthening activities that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) on at least 2 days a week

- do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week

- reduce time spent sitting or lying down and break up long periods of not moving with some activity".


However, we know that the majority of adults in the UK are not adhering to these guidelines...

There will be MANY different reasons for that.

Lack of time, or PERCEIVED lack of time, is just one of those reasons...

So it isn't always as simple as telling everybody to "make more time".

However, it is the most common reason given.

And in reality, most people adopt an "all or nothing" mindset...

"I can't do it perfectly, so I'm not doing it at all".

When expressed in black and white terms, the official guidelines may seem intimidating...

Especially to somebody who really isn't exercising at all.

"150 minutes of moderate activity"... seems like a big commitment.

And let's be honest... even "moderate" activity, can trigger the associated memories of "pain, discomfort, exhaustion, embarrassment".

When just reading the official guidelines is enough to create a sense of panic, it's not really surprising that nobody takes any notice.

Watching TV
Are you achieving the recommended levels of exercise every week?

Break It Down

As with any seeming big task, the best thing to do is break it down into smaller, less intimidating chunks.

Let's take the "75 minutes of vigorous activity per week" as an example...

When we think of it simply as 75 minutes of continuous vigorous activity, it's obviously going to be very unappealing.

Break it down into 5 x 15 minutes, over the course of 1 week, it becomes a very manageable goal...

Simply adding 15 minutes of activity to each weekday, before or after work shouldn't be a problem for most people. If your schedule requires it, a training programme could even be designed to include the "strengthening activities" within two of those short sessions.

"All Or Nothing"

But this is where people start to worry...

You may believe that you need to be in the gym for 60 minutes in order to achieve significant results.

That isn't necessarily the case. And even if it was, do you really believe that not having that 60 minutes available is a good reason to do absolutely nothing!?

Strength Training: The common assumption is that you need to go to the gym and complete 3+ sets of each exercise. And a number of studies do support that traditional method of training.

But there is also plenty of evidence that you can make progress by completing just 1 set of an exercise, if done in the right way.

Studies have consistently shown that you can gradually increase strength, muscular endurance and muscle size using this method.

This would of course be extremely useful for anybody who is short on time and/or just starting out from an untrained position.

You could easily shave 15-20 minutes off of a typical 60 minute workout by doing this.

'Cardio' Training: The same goes for most forms of cardio...

Obviously this does depend on your goals a little bit... nobody is pretending that you can prepare for a marathon by doing short, 15 minute training sessions... (although they could play a part in your overall programme).

However, if long distance/duration endurance is not your number one priority (either in general, or during a specific training session)... you can look at utilising higher intensity training methods such as interval training...

Sprint interval sessions, for example will require less time and still produce impressive results;

  • Increase your metabolic rate

  • Improve cardiovascular endurance

  • Increase your capacity and tolerance for high intensity/challenging exercise

  • Improve your speed and power (generally useful for health and fitness but even more so for improving sports performance)

  • Increase te release of endorphins during exercise. This arguably improves exercise motivation and adherence through stimulating 'reward' mechanisms in your brain

So you can easily see that the 'all or nothing' approach is a mistake.

Whatever time you do have, use it. Just make sure it's as effective as possible, while being efficient and there's no need to sacrifice results.

The only way to get zero results (or, in reality, go downhill), is to do NOTHING!

Psychological Benefits Of Exercise

More and more people are realising the profound effects that physical activity has on mental health...

  • Reduced symptoms of depression

  • Reduced risk of future development of depression

  • Improved self-esteem and confidence

  • Improved capacity to manage stress

Research in this area supports the general guidelines outlined at the start of the post...

150 minutes of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, appear to produce the most significant psychological benefits.

But again, there is plenty of evidence to show that shorter and relatively gentle exercise sessions also have a major impact.

For example, research suggests that as little as 20 minutes of walking may improve depressive symptoms.


And a lot of the additional benefits may be related to factors that are not directly related to the workout itself... being in a social environment, feeling a sense of achievement etc.

Again, these benefits do not necessarily require a huge time commitment.

Intensity vs Time

When designing training programmes, we have to take multiple variables into account...

Including (but definitely not limited to), total workout time, and workout intensity (difficulty).

It may be stating the obvious, but the point of a training programme is to "progressively overload" your body over time. This deliberate increase in the challenge of your workout is essentially what produces the progress, that hopefully leads you to your end goal.

Short, high intensity training sessions can be extremely effective...

In fact, if you are genuinely working at a truly high intensity (compared to your own fitness levels), you shouldn't be training for very long (quality over quantity).

Tabata intervals, for example, are a method of VERY high intensity training that only require 4 minutes of time (not including warm-ups, cool-down, stretching etc).

Again, this needs to be considered in relation to your goals. Sometimes, the longer duration combined with lower intensity may be necessary to achieve your targets... then of course, it's more a case of 'making the time' for your training.

Efficiency & Convenience

Personal Training At Home
Most fitness programmes can be adapted so you can exercise at home

Some types of exercise will require a more significant time commitment than others...

Once you have decided to train, you can design sessions to fit into whatever time you have available.

You can further increase that window of opportunity by increasing efficiency in the time before and after the actual exercise...

It's commonly assumed that "exercise" and "training" refers to going to the gym.

There are obviously a number of benefits to training in a gym.

But it will require a larger time commitment and is arguably not very time efficient....

Lets assume that you want to go to the gym for 1 hour;

  • You need to think about what/when you're going to eat pre-workout. So you're probably going to be preparing food and sitting down to eat 1-2 hours before the training session itself begins.

  • The 1-2 hour gap between eating and training is unlikely to be productive

  • You need to allow time to get ready... packing your gym kit etc

  • You need to travel to the gym

  • You need time to change into your workout kit

  • post-workout, you probably need to shower and change out of your workout kit

  • you need to travel again (home or to work)

  • you'll need to prepare and eat your post-workout food too.

By the time you are actually finished, you could have easily dedicated 4 hours of your day to a 1 hour workout.

That isn't going to work for most people.

But again, the 'all or nothing' mindset seems to dictate that because you don't have that 4 hours available, you "don't have time" to exercise. And therefore you do nothing...

Even if continue to commit to gym based workouts... You can of course improve that efficiency... for example, training directly before/after work. Remove a journey by adding it on to the start/end of the day when you're already out. (Perhaps choose a gym based on location - literally integrate the travel into your existing commute rather than going out of your way).

But for a lot of people, training somewhere 'more convenient' may be the best answer.

  • 'Cardio' training can easily be moved outdoors

  • Most gym based workouts can be replicated at home with minimal equipment and a little bit of creativity (the only genuine exception would be for somebody who is strictly focussing on "proper" strength training. Obviously if you need heavy weights and specialist equipment, you won't be able to have this at home unless you are able/willing to build a home gym).

You have many valid options other than joining the gym.

Even if you are convinced that the gym is the right way to exercise... if you're not going, you may as well be a little more open minded.

The point is to remove the common barriers to exercise... "lack of time" and "perceived inconvenience".

I mentioned priorities earlier.

When you think about it honestly, your own health & fitness should be very close to the top of your priority list.

You almost certainly do have time.

It's usually just a case of highlighting where you are currently wasting time, and focussing on efficiency to make sure that you can fit in something productive.

This doesn't require a huge portion of your day.

You can achieve significant results in a short time window.

So whatever time you do have available... simply make the best of it.