“How Many Times a Week Should a Client Exercise? Why?”
Tricks of the Trade: Q&A
I advise every client to exercise in some form most days of the week. Diabetes and obesity are prevalent in this country in epidemic proportions because of lack of exercise. Additionally, most clients seem to carry high stress levels every day, indicating the need for daily exercise. I urge clients to get in a minimum of 30 minutes daily, preferably 45 minutes or more, of cardiovascular exercise. At our studio we promote practicing Pilates 2–3 times a week for maximum results, or once or twice weekly as a cross-training discipline. We also urge clients to get in flexibility exercise a minimum of 2–3 times a week, which can be accomplished by practicing Pilates or yoga or by adding stretching exercises after a strength training workout or cardiovascular exercise. With the lifestyles we lead today (hunched over a computer, driving and doing other daily activities with a lot of forward flexion), more people are coming to the studio to improve back pain and postural issues. These issues are aided by practicing Pilates or other flexibility programs 2–3 times weekly.
Patricia Massey Welter
Manager/Head Trainer, Suncoast
Pilates & Personal Training Studio
Palm Harbor, Florida
During an initial consultation, one of the first questions a client will typically ask is “How many days a week should I be exercising?” Unfortunately, without more information this is a difficult question to answer, as multiple factors determine the optimal frequency of training.
The first factor is the client’s primary training goal. For example, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) the optimal training frequency for improving cardiorespiratory fitness is 3–5 days per week. However, for very deconditioned people this may be too intense; recovery time between training sessions may not be adequate. For these individuals, reducing the number of sessions to 2 days per week might allow for better recovery and reduce the risk of overtraining. For people seeking to improve VO2max, 3–5 days of training is sufficient, with only marginal gains in improvement demonstrated when training frequency is increased to more than 3 days per week. However, for people seeking to improve body composition, engaging in aerobic training more often than 3 days per week may allow for greater caloric expenditure, thus accentuating the rate at which fat loss can occur.
With regard to resistance training exercise, ACSM recommends training 2–3 days per week to improve general muscular fitness. However, clients seeking to attain greater improvements in muscle size or athletic performance may need to do resistance training as many as 4–6 days per week in order to perform the volume and intensity of training required to elicit the desired training response.
Age is another critical factor. In general, recovering from the stresses of training is more difficult for middle-aged and older individuals than it is for their younger counterparts. However, the “age” [that counts most] is physiological age, not chronological age. Training frequency must be adapted based on how well someone can tolerate training sessions and the amount of time it takes to recover after those sessions.
Finally, the factors that are probably most critical for determining exercise frequency for a client are time and commitment. In other words, how many days per week can the client dedicate to exercising? Regardless of what the ideal frequency is, family commitments, job responsibilities, homework and other factors will compete for the client’s time and impact stress levels and ability to fully recover from training. For this reason the ideal training frequencies previously discussed may not be ideal in the real world. It is ultimately your responsibility to help each client develop the most effective program that is “doable,” rather than the most effective program based exclusively on industry recommendations.
Jay Dawes, MS, CSCS NSCA-CPT,*D
Director of Education, National
Strength and Conditioning Association
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Rather than trying to hold a client to an industry “standard” that may or may not be appropriate for him or her, I prefer to take an individualized approach to exercise frequency. The number of times per week a client should exercise depends on various factors, including health and exercise histories, goals, time constraints and physical limitations, if any.
Since many clients seek out a trainer’s services because they’re having difficulty fitting any exercise into their schedules, advising them initially that they should strength train for an hour 3 times per week and exercise aerobically for at least 30 minutes 5 times per week will not only overwhelm them but also set them up for frustration. We want our clients to look forward to exercise, not dread it!
To help clients make exercise a sustainable habit, I like to introduce each activity gradually and appropriately into their workout regimens. I often tell new clients that for the first 2 weeks of their training programs, the 2–3 hours per week they spend with me will be the only change they make. Then, once they begin to feel stronger and healthier, we discuss what types of aerobic activities they enjoy and how they will begin to fit those activities into their schedules.
Many clients believe that if they can’t perform a full 30 minutes of aerobic activity, they should do nothing at all. They believe they will have failed to live up to some “ideal” that has been put forth by the latest study or media influence. As personal trainers, we need to applaud all efforts made by our clients and understand that sometimes other matters take precedence over good intentions. We must help our clients develop a passion for exercise, so that it becomes a high priority for them. The best ways to accomplish this are by developing exercise programs that make sense for individuals, based on their current and changing needs, and by providing sound coaching and encouragement.
Heidi Pool, MBA
ACE-Certified Personal Trainer
Kula, Maui, Hawaii
A variety of national and international organizations—ACSM, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization—provide guidelines for the prescription of cardiovascular, strength and flexibility exercise with regard to frequency, intensity, type and duration for apparently healthy individuals and those with disease. Nonetheless, the number of times a week that someone should exercise depends on the person’s needs and goals.
The general recommendation for the frequency of cardiovascular exercise is 3–5 days per week, with up to multiple bouts daily. For strength training, it is 2–3 days per week. For flexibility, it is whatever is necessary to maintain good posture, neutral spinal alignment and normal lengths of muscle and connective tissue at rest and to have optimal ranges of motion during physical activity.
The required frequency of cardio exercise depends on whether clients want to maintain heart health (cardiovascular disease prevention), increase aerobic capacity, improve performance in a particular sport, attain a healthier body composition (lose weight) or treat a known disease. Each of these goals warrants a different training program.
For example, a goal of maintaining heart health may simply require 3 days per week of brisk walking for 30 minutes at 50%–55% of aerobic capacity (11–12 on the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion). On the other hand, a goal of losing more than 25–30 pounds of weight may require daily accumulation of 60–90 minutes (over multiple bouts) of low- to moderate-level, appropriate activities, working at 50%–70% of aerobic capacity (11–13 on the Borg Scale). “Appropriate” activities are those that meet the client’s fitness level and activity choices and are recommended by the client’s physician.
The Rx for the frequency of strength training also depends on individual goals. An Rx to maintain or restore muscle and connective tissue mass would require different frequency commitments, intensities and emphases than an Rx to prepare for a sport or to treat an injury. Such Rxs also require specialized knowledge and expertise.
Developing a client’s training program involves blending applicable and appropriate guidelines with the client’s medical profile, physical limitations/abilities, work schedule and activity preferences. Matching a program with a personality is more challenging. It requires you to be intuitive, creative and flexible. As clients evolve in their programs, not only do their bodies change, but their lives and attitudes toward physical activity tend to grow in unexpected ways. Initial attitudes of fear and apprehension may develop into powerful discipline and a love of movement. Thus, clients literally and metaphorically “grow out” of programs that originally fit them. This is the time to reassess their programs and update them to fit the shape of the clients’ new lifestyles, needs and goals.
Marla Richmond, MS
Owner/Operator, Together for Life Inc.
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