Beginners: How hard should you exercise?


Ah the million-dollar question. How hard do I train? How often? I have people ask me this question all the time – whether they are brand new to exercise, have been active for years, or have been sedentary for the last 12 months (deconditioned) . They all ask me – how often should I come in? How much should I be doing outside of our sessions? How fast should I increase the intensity?

The answers to these questions are simple, but not that simple. There is a different answer to each of these questions, and a different answer for each person. Remember permutations and computations from High School math? That means thousands (or millions) of different answers! Okay that was super geeky. Back to the question.

How hard to exercise and how often is completely different for each person: their history, their current fitness level, their genetics, their age (demographic), and of course their GOALS. If your goal is to run a marathon, then your program will be specific. If you are looking to improve your energy level and get healthy, then it is completely different.

1. History: Specifically, a persons health history. Have you had any injuries in the past? How bad were these injuries? Do you have a heart condition, or high (or low) blood pressure? How long have you been exercising (or active) and at what intensities?

If you have high blood pressure, or previous health or heart conditions, then you ABSOLUTELY need to be cleared by a doctor. This will help you to understand the risks. If your doctor allows it,  then you would usually benefit from some exercise, as over time it will help to lower blood pressure and promote weight loss. Even if it starts as walking or yoga.


2. Injuries: If you have had an injury in the past or a recent injury (or simply pain in an area that has not been diagnosed), then I would see a physiotherapist that can assess the injury and provide some guidance on what to avoid to aggravate it or re-injure it.Usually, I like to try to strengthen muscles that will support healing and prevent aggravation and re-injury.

And trust me, I know about injuries. A good trainer can also provide exercises to do to stabilize certain areas, and strengthen muscles to prevent it re-occuring. Remember that it is out of the scope of practice of a trainer (most trainers) to diagnose an injury. So if they are unsure, you should always seek another opinion.

Usually it’s best to err on the side of caution, but no one wants to sit around and wait for an injury to heal, and becoming more inactive. If you are unsure, and the doc okay’s it, then stick to low impact exercises (if it’s a joint or weight-bearing injury). If it’s a muscle injury, then it really depends on the muscle, and how bad the injury. Just keep in mind, the more you use it when there is pain, the longer it will take to heal, and the more likely you are to re-injure it. Basically – if there is pain – your body is telling you something is wrong.

3. Current Fitness Level: This one is important. It’s sometimes hard for people who have been highly active in the past, but are coming off of an injury, or are deconditioned (haven’t exercised in 6 – 12 months). The reason it’s tricky is because their mind knows what they can do, so they’ll usually push and expect to be at the level they left off. An example of this was a few years ago when I entered into a team relay race in the Rocky Mountains. I was brought in as a back up, and had only 5 weeks to train for my leg of the race, with only about a 5 km base. It was about 18 km, and I was unprepared and had trained poorly. I made it through the race in decent time (thats what perseverance and adrenaline will do), but I ended up with a stress fracture in my foot which took me out of running for the summer. Not fun at all.

Let’s assume you are a healthy beginner and have no injuries and use good form  (Intermediate and Seasoned athletes – stay tuned for another blog for you). The most important thing in this case is to PREVENT any injuries. I would hire a trainer to ensure you have good form during exercise and teach you how to become more aware of the muscles in your body. A good trainer will educate you so that you are always doing purposeful exercises, and knowing where to feel each one.

Child-Heart-BeatFor cardio, you want to begin to exercise at about 60-65% of your Maximum Heart Rate (HRM) to start with. If that feels easy, then you can either increase the time, or the intensity (speed, incline, resistance) to increase your heart rate. You want to feel breathless, but not gasping, especially if you are new. Seasoned athletes need not read this as their programs are completely different and depend on their sport. You should start at 2-3 days per week of 20 – 30 minutes low-moderate intensity cardio. Listen to your body. You want to feel muscle burn, sweat, and heavy breathing. After 3 weeks, increase the intensity for yourself.

For resistance training – start with 1-2 days per week, with light weights and simple exercises. You want to feel sore 1-3 days later (usually peak soreness occurs around 36 hours). The soreness should not impair you from day to day activities. A bit of soreness is important – it means your muscle fibres were breaking down and they are now re-building stronger. But we’d like you to be able to walk up and down stairs and lift your arms. So start with 20-30 minutes of weights 2 days per week, and gradually increase the weight, or reps, or times of week you train…

It’s never a bad idea to be active 5-6 days per week, but the type of activity is important. You should have at least one rest day (very light or no exercise), and some days of lighter-moderate exercise following high intensity days for active recovery.

3. Genetics: What I mean by this is family health history. If your family has a history of heart disease, then you need to be aware of the risks, and again take it slow. See your doctor, and maybe start on a beginners program. Use a heart rate monitor to stay in a lower heart rate zone (that’s for another blog…)

SPforum_fitness_and_exerciseSo as you can see, there are way too many possible answers for one blog. It’s so individual that we couldn’t possible blanket everyone under one program. But that is precisely the beauty and challenge of personal training. We thrive on creating something that is right for each person, and walking that line of pushing your body just enough.

Stay tuned if you liked this one – there is more to come on exercise intensity!

Stay sweaty my friends,


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