Sometimes I’ll get inspired to do a set of crunches in front of the TV. Or 10 push-ups before my morning shower. I walk to work and I take the stairs (well, I take them down). Then I do three reps of patting myself on the back for my efforts. I like to tell myself that every little thing counts. But does it, really? We asked the experts to draw the line between does a body good and does a body nothing.
Yoga guru and certified trainer Kristin McGee agrees that the little things do add up. “NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) makes a difference in our metabolic makeup,” she says. “If you keep moving throughout the day you have a better chance of maintaining your weight.” Will it get you ready to run a marathon or turn a beer belly into a six-pack? No, sir. But it counts toward muscle fitness and keeps you in tune with your body—and where you could add a little oomph in the exercise department.
“If your goal is to feel better and it makes you feel better to do 10 push-ups a week, then goal achieved,” says personal trainer Kelvin Gary, owner of New York City’s Body Space Fitness. “But if your goal is to drop 20 pounds by February first, that isn’t what we like to call the ‘minimum effective dose.’”
The minimum effective dose, Gary explains, is the minimum amount you have to do of a particular type of exercise in order to reap a physiological benefit. The threshold differs depending on the workout, your body, diet and goals.
To help you reach your fitness goals, we asked the experts to recommend workout routines that ranged from meeting the bare minimum of fitness to truly changing your body. Trying to maintain your weight and generally stay healthy? The “At least” routines will help you hold onto the status quo. If you’re aiming to drop some extra pounds or get more muscle definition, look to the “Step it up” sections—and be prepared to kick things up a notch.
A good rule of thumb, says Gary, is to do strength training two to four times a week for 30 minutes to an hour. Thirty well-spent minutes will do more than two inefficient hours at the gym.
At least: Aim for two days of resistance training per week, plus one to two days of 30 to 45 minutes of cardio. Gary recommends a full body circuit that includes squats and lunges for your legs and butt, pull-ups or a seated row and push-ups for your upper body, along with sit-ups and a plank to target your core. If you’re starting from scratch, something is always better than nothing, according to Derek DeGrazio, a certified fitness trainer in Los Angeles. “A 15- to 30-minute brisk walk and 10 minutes of resistance training every other day is a good start.”
Step it up: While research is varied on which burns fat best—resistance or cardio—Gary likes his clients to reach their weight-loss goals by thinking of resistance as if it were cardio, doing it in a way that gets your heart rate up and keeps it there the whole time. Using the scheme above, swap out a day of cardio for a day of push-pull dumbbell exercises such as squats, lunges, shoulder press, bench press and rows. On cardio days, go to a cardio sculpt or indoor cycling class, such as Soul Cycle or Flywheel.
The American Heart Association guidelines say you should walk 30 minutes a day for cardiovascular health. That should be your minimum, Gary says, “but I don’t necessarily see walking to work as being intense enough to call it exercise.”
At least: You want to reach 60 percent of your maximum heart rate for at least 30 minutes three times a week. To find out what 60 percent is, you can ballpark it using the Karvonen formula: 220 − resting heart rate −age + 0.60 × resting heart rate. Use a heart rate monitor, such as Polartec FT7 women’s fitness heart rate monitor ($74), to make sure you’re hitting that number.
Step it up: If you want to lose weight doing just cardio, you should work out five days a week. Three of those days, do interval training in which you pepper your workout with bursts of high-intensity exercises (think sprints, burpees, mountain climbers). For the other two days, go for moderate “steady state” activities such as jogging, biking, dancing, ice-skating or a cardio kickboxing.
Yoga and Pilates
While regular Pilates workouts can help you lose weight, it’s really a method of strengthening and aligning the body, notes Brooke Siler, celebrity Pilates instructor and owner of re:AB Pilates Studio in New York City. Yoga isn’t necessarily a go-to for fat burning, either, but even a pose a day confers some benefit. “If you can do a full body move like downward-facing dog, plank, upward-dog or some warrior poses, you are using your core, strengthening your muscles, stretching your muscles and working your entire body at once,” McGee says.
At least: To maintain your current weight, McGee recommends three yoga classes a week. Siler says one to two “sweaty Pilates sessions on mat or apparatus per week would do it.”
Step it up: You want to work with resistance-based Pilates equipment at least three times a week to lose fat and sculpt muscle—again, making sure to get a good sweat going. For yogis, go to class five out of seven days to pose the pounds away.