How much is enough? Discover the optimal amount of time for a great workout

How much is enough? Discover the optimal amount of time for a great workout

When your to-do list is demanding attention and you don’t have a lot of spare time, how long should you spend on an exercise session? We’ve all heard the official medical advice about getting 150 minutes exercise per week. But then there’s recent research that suggests even a few minutes per day can be effective. Who’s right? Or is it a case of what’s right for you? Let’s find out. What’s the optimal amount of time to spend on a workout? Like many questions in health and fitness, the answer is “it depends”. Here’s how to make the most of even the shortest block of workout time...

What’s your workout goal?

The first thing you need to do is be clear about your goals. Why do you exercise? Is it to lose weight, to lose body fat, to build muscle, to get stronger, or to train for a specific sport or event? Obviously someone training for a marathon will need to train for longer than someone who wants to shift some body fat and change their body composition, so it’s important that you have a good idea about why you’re exercising. For the sake of this blog post, let’s say that your goals are to lose a bit of body fat, tone up those wobbly bits, and generally get fitter and healthier. You’re not interested in competing or racing in any sport. You just want to look and feel better.

The best duration for cardio

Unless you are training for a specific endurance event, there’s no need to go out for a long jog or bike ride (unless you want to). So just how long is effective for steady-state cardio like running, riding a bike, or using gym cardio equipment? Well the answer is that 30-60 minutes is plenty for the workout goal that you have set. You’ll burn calories, tap into the “runner’s high” (endorphins) and work up a sweat. Remember that cardio does not necessarily need to take hours if it’s part of a more generic workout because you’re trying to work the whole body with the intention of getting fitter.

The best duration for weight training

Some people can be in the weights area of the gym for two hours, but there’s really no need. 30 minutes is plenty of time to get an effective resistance workout, especially if you have a plan, know your routine, and go about it with focus and intensity. You might choose to train with a body part split (legs one day, shoulders another day etc). Or you may prefer to do a full-body workout a few times a week instead. Both are great and will get you results - and both can be achieved in 30 minutes. It’s up to you to choose the pattern that suits you best, as everyone is different so what works for one person may not be ideal for another. Listen to your body and work it around your schedule.


HIIT -high intensity interval training - is the new buzzword in fitness circles. Not everyone should be doing the kind of intense intervals which leave you gasping for breath and unable to talk. If you’re new to exercise, coming back from injury or recovering from time out, there’s no need. But we can all incorporate the basic idea of interval training into our busy lives. Instead of three or four 30-60 minute exercise sessions per week, try 5-10 minutes of intervals every other day. Intervals are any exercises that challenge you: sprints on the rowing machine, a stationary bike, or running are ideal, as is using kettlebells, or even doing bodyweight plyometrics. Do 30-45 seconds “work interval” followed by 30 seconds “rest interval” to recover, then repeat for as little as 5 minutes per day.

Runner resting on staircase

Challenge the intensity

The fitness industry’s fixation on HIIT is an interesting one, but what can we all take from it? The need to work harder. Keep your workout times shorter, but focus and push yourself. Work within your own abilities and be safe, but challenge yourself. You’ll be surprised by how much more you can do. Bear in mind as well that intense workouts also burn more calories, both during and after the session.

Make your workouts work for you

With limited time to train, you need to make every minute of your workout count. Get in, get it done, get out. Identify areas of your workout sessions which are dead time: getting caught up in conversations, checking your phone, waiting for equipment. Once you’ve established this, you’ll instantly be able to make time savings. How can you use your time more effectively? Perhaps you need to get a personal trainer to make you a more streamlined plan, or maybe you need a new music playlist which helps you focus more intensely. Do whatever you need to help with your time management, ensuring you get the best out of your workout.

How long is too long?

Marathon training aside, there’s a case for keeping workouts short. Research suggests that training for longer than 45-60 minutes can actually be detrimental. How so? When we exercise, the body churns out cortisol - often called “the stress hormone”. In short bursts, cortisol is very useful (it helped our ancestors muster up the fight or flight response to get away from those pesky woolly mammoths). But for us modern folk, ongoing amounts of cortisol can be damaging to our health, our hearts, and our efforts to lose weight. With that in mind, there’s a strong argument for keeping your workouts shorter and more effective, as long as you leave time to recover properly. Longer is not necessarily better unless you’re training for that marathon! For the most part, the optimal amount of time is what suits your body, but also your goals. Decide what you want out of your workouts and go from there - you’ll be having great workouts and heading towards your exercise goals before you know it.