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Why Consistency Trumps Duration With Exercise For Weight Loss

I was speaking to a group of employees at a lunch and learn yesterday and received a question that I think a lot of folks have regarding exercise. It had to do with just how often does one need to exercise in order to lose weight?

While I’ve somewhat covered this subject in the past, specifically on resistance training, it got me thinking about the consistency of physical activity versus the duration of individual workouts.

From my experience consistency or frequency with exercise in general is far more important than how much time you spend on individual workouts. In today’s post I want to touch on why this is and the physiological reasons behind it.

More after the jump…

Here’s a common scenario I’ve seen with personal training clients or heard from people I’ve met over the years.

An individual wants to lose weight and see a change in their shape, but they’re stuck in a rut even with a pretty clean diet and getting in some form of exercise a few times a week.

An example would be someone who does a couple days of resistance training for 30 minutes and possibly 20-30 minutes of cardio before or after followed by a third day of Yoga, Pilates, group exercise or whatever.

While one can certainly maintain their weight and stay healthy on such a routine (assuming they have a pretty clean diet), seeing much in the way of weight loss is questionable.

I’ve seen this time and time again. The workouts themselves may be great and have all the proper variables for progression. They may even be of  the longer duration with 60 minutes or more dedicated to each session.

This just leaves people frustrated when they don’t understand why their healthy diet and exercise regiment isn’t working. They’re doing their best to get in 2-3 workouts a week with a busy schedule, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.

The initial reaction may be to spend even more time with each workout, you know to burn more calories in hopes that this will start moving the scale. Sometimes this helps as there’s benefit of putting in additional cardio before and/or after a resistance training workout.

Unfortunately, it’s not always enough to move the needle very far.

Here’s the thing, I understand time is the all important variable here. Not everyone has an hour to spend on exercise Monday through Friday. While this isn’t feasible for a lot of folks, I’d be quick to argue you don’t need an hour anyways.

Do you have 30 minutes to spend on exercise each day, how about 20 minutes?

Truth be told you’re more likely to see the results you want by spending even a mere 20 minutes exercising each day (5 x week) than doing 2-3 workouts a week which could be 60 minutes or more.

Let’s break this down.

If you exercised for 20 minutes a day, five times a week, you’d be getting in a grand total of 1:40 for the week.

If you exercised for 60 minutes, three times a week, you’d be getting in a grand total of 3 hours for the week.

So how in the world could 1:40 minutes be better than 3 hours?

This is where we start to debunk the time myth with exercise.

It’s not how long you spend with exercise that’s most important, but rather how you do it and how often.

Here’s why…

I believe one of the big reasons for this, which isn’t talked about much, has to do with blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, and other hormonal balances. As you probably already know these are very important variables for weight loss.

While most people are overly fixed on calories, fat loss has more influence from hormonal balances. Simply put, exercising more frequently does a better job of putting these variables in your favor. This is especially true if you’re doing short bursts of higher intensity activity (yes, I’m talking about burst training again).

Understand this, the human body does a pretty good job of adapting to longer duration cardio workouts. Unfortunately, the adaptations aren’t always in your favor from a fat loss standpoint. While you may be burning more calories (during the workout) with longer workouts, chances are you’re also raising cortisol levels.

The longer you go with endurance based activities the more growth hormone secretion decreases and the more cortisol secretion increases.

The tendency for a lot of folks is to simply eat more following their longer workouts. Some do this because in their mind they justify a cheat meal with the assumption that the calories they burned off with the workout cancels everything out.

Don’t do this, it’s faulty thinking.

Anyways, there’s also a physiological reason for this as research has shown with overweight exercisers. That the tendency to eat more following longer workouts can be influenced by hormonal and blood sugar fluctuations.

When stored glycogen levels plummet and cortisol rises, the body sends chemical signals to the brain triggering appetite.

In short, there’s a good chance that longer cardio will just have you being a “sugar burner” instead of a “fat burner.”

In my earlier years I used to wonder why a lot of times you’d see a spinning instructor, aerobics instructor, etc, with a somewhat soft and chubby appearance even though they were doing so much exercise.

The reality is they were likely “sugar burners” who burned a lot of calories and stored glycogen during their workouts, only to crave sugar and replenish their depleted stores later with cheat meals.

This isn’t to say that you can’t burn fat by incorporating aerobics or spinning, the cardio and calorie burning benefits are there. And you can certainly find people who follow a clean diet and exclusively do these activities and stay pretty lean.

But for every one of those folks there’s a much larger segment who are overweight sweating it out for an hour several times a week and getting nowhere.

I don’t want to get too far off track from the time issue here as I’m getting into a whole other topic.

The point is I’d rather see someone cut out 20-30 minutes a day for shorter duration, higher intensity exercise, than try and get in 2-3 workouts a week, even at 60 minutes or more.

By regularly doing higher intensity physical activity, especially when it’s working lean muscle, the better you’ll be at improving insulin sensitivity, stabilizing blood sugar levels, and boosting your metabolism.

In other words the better you’ll be at getting and staying lean.

If I only had 20 minutes to workout each morning what would I do?

If getting lean was the main objective, I would do burst training that combined resistance exercise and cardiovascular exercise.

You wouldn’t need a lot of equipment to get this done, heck you could just use your own bodyweight if that’s all you had. Push-up’s, lunges, bodyweight squats, and other exercises could be combined with jump rope, mountain climbers, jumping jacks, etc.

The idea is to work hard, apply some resistance to the muscles, get yourself out of breath, and then briefly recover and repeat.

Tis far better than a leisurely walk or even a jog on the treadmill. But even if you just did cardio for 20-30 minutes on the days you didn’t do resistance training it would be better than trying to cram everything in over 2-3 total sessions for the week.

Maybe this means getting up a half hour earlier each morning or exercising in the evening instead of watching TV. Again this all comes down to priorities.

Time can be tight and I get that, but chances are if you really took a good look at your daily routines you’d could find 20-30 minutes.

I just wanted you to see that consistency really is a big piece of the puzzle. I’ve had people come to me for consultations who were jogging up to 4-5 miles in the morning, three times a week, and not seeing the scale budge.  Not all that uncommon.

There’s just something about consistency with exercise and being active on a regular basis. I’ll often recommend to my new personal training clients that I want them to do some form of physical activity 5 x week.

Doesn’t mean they have to do a structured workout for an hour or more each day, just means I want them to carve out time for at least 20-30 minutes a day.

I’ve just seen far too many folks come in to our studios for a personal training workout 2 x week and then do little else outside the gym and be frustrated when it’s not working. There needs to be physical activity on a frequent basis, not even burst training workouts can produce the kind of magic that would trim you up with 2 x week workouts.

Again the recipe for body transformation goes like this…

  1. Resistance exercise
  2. Cardiovascular exercise
  3. Supportive nutrition

Consistency with all three is what matters. If you’re struggling to see the results you desire, instead of trying to find the time to do longer workouts, look to exercise more often.

If you’d like help putting together a burst training workout routine to meet your individual needs and available equipment, this is something we can assist you with at Shaping Concepts.

While we specialize in personal training, we also do home workout program design along with program design for those regularly going to health clubs.

I hope you found this post to be informative and as always I appreciate having you as a reader.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in helping middle age adults achieve a body transformation with burst training exercise and supportive nutrition. You can receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal fitness programs and start experiencing the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Fitness Training.