How Much Exercise Is Enough?

Fitness coaches and personal trainers often get asked, “How much exercise is enough?” As in, “How much work do I need to do in order to meet my health and fitness goals? Is running one mile five days a week enough? Is a calorie deficit of 200 calories per day sufficient? And when can I stop all this work and just live my new life as a healthy person?”

But questions like these miss two important points. First, merely asking “how much exercise is enough?” fails to identify a precise objective that will dictate how much effort is necessary to attain a particular goal. And second, they fail to recognize that health and fitness, like intelligence and morality, are not one-off pursuits that can be cast aside once a short-term objective is achieved. Every pursuit in life, whether physical, intellectual or moral, is not an endpoint, but a new stop on a long and continuous journey.

How Much Exercise Is Enough?

Defining the Objective

The inadequacy of the “how much exercise is enough?” question becomes apparent when compared to other domains. No French student asks, “If I practice saying ‘bonjour’ and ‘au revoir’ every day, is that enough?” To start, such questions are meaningless without reference to a specific aim. Practicing two French phrases is enough if you want to learn two French phrases. It is woefully inadequate if your goal is to become fluent in French.

Likewise, running one mile a day, five days a week, is enough to become pretty good at running one mile. It is not enough if you want to run a marathon. Furthermore, just as fluency in a foreign language requires constantly learning new words and using them in conversation, proficiency in any physical skill requires constantly introducing new variations and challenges in training. Running a mile a day will improve your one-mile time—to a point. Eventually, you will hit a plateau, and your rate of improvement will level off. Continued improvement will require the introduction of new workouts, such as running one-quarter-mile intervals and paced runs of two miles or more.

The Many Benefits of a Challenge

One might object that it is unnecessary to practice every aspect of a field in order to meet one’s objectives. Any student who has struggled with a difficult or boring subject at school and asked “do I really need to learn this?” can identify with this point. I never use the calculus I learned in high school in my daily life. Similarly, someone who runs one mile five days a week might want to use this workout to maintain a certain level of fitness and not to qualify for the Olympics.

All that being said, there is still value in learning new skills and tackling new challenges, even if they go beyond your primary objectives. While I do not use calculus in my daily life, I still benefitted from that high school coursework. For one thing, I had no idea when I learned calculus whether or not I would have a career in a field that required that knowledge. And even if I knew I would never use calculus once I graduated from college, the process of studying a more challenging subject and engaging my brain in a different field of mathematics made me a better student and prepared me to tackle other challenging subjects in college.

In a similar vein, a person with more modest fitness goals can benefit from workouts and physical challenges that differ from their normal routine and push their current abilities. As I have said before on KineSophy, physical challenges offer a great, low-stakes opportunity to practice responding to adversity in any facet of life.

Asking “how much exercise is enough?” fails to identify a precise objective and fails to recognize that health and fitness are not one-off pursuits.

Asking “how much exercise is enough?” fails to identify a precise objective and fails to recognize that health and fitness are not one-off pursuits.

A Change in Lifestyle

The second issue raised by the “how much exercise is enough?” question relates to morality. No one asks, “If I donate $1,000 to charity one time, does that make me a good person?” Being a good person requires a constant commitment to acting with integrity, fairness and kindness. Donating money to charity is a good deed. And good people are those who regularly perform good deeds. But doing one good deed does not overshadow a lifetime of apathy or badness.

Likewise, setting a specific weight-loss goal is all but meaningless without a plan for keeping that weight off. It is not enough to lose the desired weight. The benefits of weight loss come from maintaining a healthy weight over a long period of time. And if you revert to your old habits after losing ten pounds, you will quickly gain that weight right back. You need a comprehensive lifestyle plan to maintain a healthy weight, just as you need a lifestyle plan or ethical code to be a good person.

A Continuous Journey

The greater point of this discussion is that life is continuous, not an endpoint. Being the person you want to be—whether physically, intellectually or ethically—requires having specific objectives and exerting regular effort. Of course, these objectives can change over time, and the form and intensity of effort will change, too. But there is no sphere of life in which success is a one-time endpoint, and this fact is as true of fitness as of any other pursuit.