What’s Enough Exercise?

This started as a conversation over at Spoonforkfuls’ blog.

living400lbs Says:
[…] One of my recurring issues with injuries is finding the line between working out too much and not working out enough….

spoonfork38 Says:
Yeah, it’s that definition of ‘enough’ that gets me almost every time.

I mean, enough for what, exactly?

living400lbs Says:
In my case?   I’m working out enough if I avoid that nice painful feeling that I get on the outside of my right leg when I don’t walk much. It’s enough to keep my right leg lowering me down to the next stair instead of giving way. Enough to keep my lower back from aching by the end of a day at the computer.

I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that I have an answer for that.

On further reflection I think it’s good that I have an indicator, a concrete reminder to get moving.   But there’s more to it than that.

First, there’s “not working out enough” and “working out too much”.   The problems I described in my comment happen when I’m not working out enough … but also when I’m working out too much.  It would be nice if they were more different but oh well!

Second: Bodies tend to be able to do what we ask them to do regularly.  When I worked in a day care and ran after 4-year-olds all day, I could be on my feet all day and carry 4-year-olds with ease. Your life may already provide a good balance of activity and ability, or you may have too much activity your comfort. Me?  Currently my life allows me to be pretty sedentary.   Too sedentary to support everything that I want to be able to do, such as to easily walk a few miles or to easily walk up and down stairs.

I also have luxury of being mostly able-bodied, however temporarily.  I have some arthritis in my knees and a history of wrist RSIs, but those are not currently limiting my ability.

As I see it, this leaves me with the following options:

  1. Decide I don’t care that much about walking a few miles or more than 1 flight of stairs at a time.  After all, I obviously don’t need to do that on a day-to-day basis.
  2. Decide to change my life so that I must do those things to get through the day.  For example, I could sell my car and house and move to a 3- or 4-story townhome near a shopping center.
  3. Decide to exercise enough to support what I want to do, even though I don’t need do to it on a day-to-day basis.

In some ways I’m a bit lucky in that I do get a concrete indicator (pain) when I’m not exercising what I deem to be “enough”.

Here’s the thing, though:  What’s enough for me?  Is likely not what’s enough for you.   You may feel the level of activity you get in a day is fine and not bother getting additional exercise.  Or you may training for a marathon.  Or you may be trading a manual wheelchair for a motorized one.   So much depends on who you are, where your body is at, and what is possible.   Then you can look at what you want and whether it’s feasible to get it.

32 thoughts on “What’s Enough Exercise?

  1. So much depends on who you are, where your body is at, and what is possible. Then you can look at what you want and whether it’s feasible to get it.

    Makes sense to me! ;)

    • Makes sense to me, too!

      I’ve been having a hard time feeling like I’m exercising “enough” lately. I’m about 10 weeks pregnant, and before I got pregnant, I was walking 4-5 miles most days. Now, I work PT and not at all in the summer, and my son is 5 so he doesn’t need my constant attention, so I have the luxury of having the time to spend 60-90 minutes a day working out if I feel like it.

      But, as much as I’d love to keep up with 4 mile walks right now, my body is so not on board with that plan. On a day when I’m feeling really good, I can manage 2-3 miles. On a day when I’m not feeling so great, I might have to push myself to make it a mile. The other day my body was telling me to rest, I decided to walk anyway, and 20 minutes into my walk I threw up. My body was going to have the last word, thank you very much.

      So now I’m just figuring that “enough” is what I can do and what makes me feel better, not worse. I’ve got the added issue of having panic disorder and aerobic exercise being, along with medication, one of the primary ways I keep it under control, so I can tell if I’m getting “enough” exercise by how anxious I’m feeling, as well. But, again, it’s a matter of what makes me feel better, not worse. No or “too little” exercise and I tend to feel tense, moody, and lethargic; “too much” exercise and I feel exhausted and cranky. But I don’t think there’s a magic formula for figuring out the “right” amount other than listening to your body and trusting it.

  2. For me it is, am I exercising “enough” to feel mostly healthy? When I don’t move much, I feel sluggish, icky, even mildly depressed. And it hurts when I *do* move. But when I am exercising regularly, I feel happier, stronger, more confident. So whatever it takes to get to THAT, plus strengthening my knee areaso that it doesn’t hurt when I walk, is my *enough.*

  3. Good post. I think I’m about level with Lyn. Am I exercising enough to not feel sluggish? Then again, I have a history of being obsessive about exercise, so I’m never sure.

    This comes at a good time for me, as I have been insanely busy and have not had time to exercise much and it’s severely bumming me out. I need to remember that if my body feels fine, then I am exercising enough.

  4. I am coming from a lifetime of the other direction, of usually exercising much too much, 3 to 4 hours daily, including recently about 5-6 years of 1500 stomach crunches every day, always pushing to be ‘as good as’ thin people, even though I am not remotely athletic, or ‘as good as’ able-bodied people, even though I have dealt all my life with cerebral palsy & now arthritis. Now I am taking glucosamine/chondroitin supplements, which seem to help a lot with the pain, but there is no cure-all. My balance seems to be that, for ME, walking at a pace I can sustain for 30-40 minutes daily is MY ‘enough’. I am about to turn 60 in less than three weeks & my body has let me know that I cannot handle intense workouts anymore & that I have in fact contributed to the breakdown of my body by my excessive exercisem but I am also hyper & cannot sit still long & I stiffen up so much if I sit much that I have to keep moving. The one steady walk, plus moving around a few minutes every half hour to hour during the day, doing my usual chores, etc., sometimes walking a bit extra when I need to or feel like it, is doing whatever can be done to keep me as mobile & independent as possible for as long as possible. For me, one of the most important things I can do is learn to appreciate & respect my body, recognize how hard I have been on it all these years, &, in the last third or so of my life, be kinder to it & thank it for all it has done for me despite considerable odds & excessive expectations. I hope to make these adjustments well enough so that, if one day I am one who must make a move to a motorized wheelchair or scooter, that I can do so gracefully & not curse my body for its failure.

  5. I think this point about the things you want or need to do sometimes, but not all the time or at least not often enough to have a conditioning effect is where I slip up. I have, over the years, had a bad habit of weekend warrior-ing myself right into an injury. Now I try to work out enough to be sure that when a chance comes up to do something fun I can do it without ending up in screaming pain.

    I’m lucky, because I happen to also find the working out fun, but I’ve often wondered what I’d do if I didn’t like it. I can’t imagine spending 30 or 60 minutes a day doing something I hated just to be in shape to occasionally spend a few hours doing something I like. That wouldn’t seem like much of a trade off to me.

    • I can’t imagine spending 30 or 60 minutes a day doing something I hated just to be in shape to occasionally spend a few hours doing something I like.

      That’s why I don’t do any sort of strength training, beyond some yoga. I love doing aerobic exercise; I don’t enjoy doing strength training. If I did it a lot, maybe I’d learn to enjoy it, but I don’t feel like investing the time to find out. I’m fortunate that I don’t have any physical problems right now that could be helped by strength training, like back or knee problems. If I did, I’d probably find myself much more inspired to spend the time. But, as it is, it’s hard to see what strength training would add to my life, and I’m not willing to spend, as you said, even just 30 minutes 3-4 days a week doing something that I neither enjoy nor see any substantial real-life benefits from.

      • Heh. Part of why I have strengthening things I can do in 10 minutes at home is that it makes the walking/stairs easier. The payoff is worth it for me.

        That said? I miss the days I could go dancing every Thursday and Friday and sleep late the next morning. That’s not (just) aerobics, that’s fun! ;)

  6. I can dance in my room to very fast dance music (140-180 BPM) for up to an hour, and there are times when I did it five days a week. Now, if I get in at least 30 minutes to an hour 2-3 days a week, then that’s enough for me.

  7. This is a great post. Currently, I’m exercising 5-6 days a week for between 40 minutes and an hour a day. I feel more relaxed and yet more energized on this schedule, so for now, I will be sticking with it.

    I do see though that some of my fellow gym-goers, well, they seem to be on a mission. There is one woman who seemingly goes to the gym 7 days a week and works out for, at my best guess, 2 hours a day. Maybe mentally and physically this is what she thinks is best for her, but I must say, I’ve left with her some days and it seems like when all is said and done she can barely drag herself up the stairs to leave the gym.

    To me, that is the exact opposite point of physical activity. I want my life to be enhanced by the movement in my life, not hindered by it.

  8. I definitely agree with the fact that it’s just so individual, the amount and intensity of exercise… I’ve battled for a long time with myself and with society regarding how I’m supposed to look. A few months ago I recognized the fact that I’m just so sick of giving a f*ck about what other people think- it’s not about them. It’s about me and how I feel about living day to day. So if I’m comfortable and happy just working out for 2 minutes one day and 40 minutes the next, that’s great. I’ve really had to work hard at focusing on myself, interestingly. What amount of exercise feels right on a given day… what amount of food I need one day might vary too.. and it’s been pretty hard to ‘get’ that concept. It’s so hard to live in the society that we do and not hate ourselves innately.

    It’s very freeing to be happy with yourself when it is against our American ethos to hate our bodies and yearn to change.

    Thank you for your website, by the way. It makes me happy to visit and read and share!

  9. It’s really nice to see so many people using their body’s cues to figure out how much exercise is enough, instead of calculating calories burned.

    For me, aerobic exercise is enough if my mood and energy level stay within my normal range, and too much if I feel exhausted afterwards. Strength training is enough if I can feel that my muscles are tired when I finish the workout, and too much if I have excessive next-day soreness.

    I get the impression that I exercise less than lots of people in the fatosphere, some of whom are less able-bodied than I am. And that’s okay, because self-care isn’t a competition.

    • It’s really nice to see so many people using their body’s cues to figure out how much exercise is enough, instead of calculating calories burned.

      I’ve usually tended to discount that myself. First, calories burned is an approximation anyway. Second, there isn’t a lot of research about people my size. A lot of calculators assume that a 300lb person doubling the calories burned by an “average” 150lb person, which may not even apply.

      I do know people who go for the number of calories burned, but mostly if I’m looking at that number on the treadmill it’s to distract me from how slowly the minutes are turning ;)

  10. Yeah, I get the impression that most people think “enough” exercise means “enough to make you slim.” They don’t realize the potential for injury — sometimes really serious injury — that springs from that mindset.

    I think sports injuries in adults (that is, adults who are not professional or Olympic-level athletes) are much more common that people realize. Even if you “start slow,” if you wind up getting more exercise than your body can tolerate, because you feel guilty about being (or potentially becoming) fat, it can really mess you up. Right now I’m walking with a cane because all the walking I did has done a real number on my foot, stretching ligaments out of shape and so forth. And I like to walk, but not to the point where it hurts.

    • I think sports injuries in adults (that is, adults who are not professional or Olympic-level athletes) are much more common that people realize.

      OMG yes. I messed up my knee a few years ago by starting a walking program myself. I’m still dealing with the effects of that.

    • This really resonates with me right now. I’m sitting here on the computer, on the couch, with my ankle elevated and an ice pack on it. I did something to my ankle today at the gym, not sure what exactly. It felt fine while I was doing my hour on the elliptical, but walking around afterwards turned quickly to agony.

  11. I also am using a cane now, Meowser, which has been difficult for me because I am so fiercely independent & have spent my whole life insisting to people that “I am NOT a cripple”. I started using a cane regularly at 58 & my balance issues, which have been lifelong, became serious enough so that I felt I had no choice; I trip over things easily, turn over my ankles, move a funny way & overbalance, & I have knees & ankles which occasionally will wobble & threaten to collapse under me. My sons’ grandmother, who is 87, recently took a nasty fall & ended up with bruises & two black eyes; however, when her son suggested a cane, she insisted that she doesn’t need one, “that’s for OLD people”, because she is in denial of how old she is & of the fact that our bodies do break down & weaken with age. I cannot afford that kind of denial; I have already had one smashed kneecap, when I was only 30, & I would prefer not to break any more bones as I am aging. So I moderate my exercise, cut back some for the sake of a body whch has walked well over 50,000 miles, & accomodate my disabilities. I finally understand that I cannot compete with athletes or able-bodied people, but now I finally understand that I don’t have to & that being disabled, older, fat, unathletic, does not make me ‘less than.’

    As for losing weight, my personal experience has been that pushing myself to work out three to four hours every day for three or four years or more only results in weight loss of 15 to 18 pounds, followed by rebound weight gain of about 30-35 pounds, & I will never again consider it worthwhile. I keep reminding myself that study after study cannot find ANY health benefits from more exercise than moderate walking about 30 minutes daily, & even that is not engraved in steel, since plenty of people, including in my own family, who never exercised regularly, live to a ripe old age, & more than a few intense exercisers drop dead at an early age, so exercise is neither the secret to weight loss or eternal life. I am working every day to be at home in my body & okay with as much movement as I can handle. Not only does it differ from person to person, it differs at different stages of life. I am glad I have always been active, but now, at my age, I kind of wish I had exercised somewhat less.

  12. And, yes, Meowser, I know that orthopedists say that they are seeing more serious injuries from exercise in non-professionals & more things such as knee & hip replacements in younger & younger people. My son is 36, runs 5k & 10K races, & has many body image & food issues, doesn’t believe really that there is ANY SUCH THING as too much exercise, & he has a bad hip, & will one day need a hip replacement, probably before he is anything close to old, all from excessive physical activities & excessive expectations.

    • doesn’t believe really that there is ANY SUCH THING as too much exercise,

      I follow several pro cyclists on twitter and one, Cadel Evans (2nd in the 2007 Tour de France) just tweeted the other day that he took one of those “what’s your real age” type quizzes online… He’s 32 years old. His real age came out to be 80. Granted a lot of that has to do with traveling a lot for a living, but some of it has to do with beating the crap out of himself for a living. Our social idea that exercise is some sort of golden ticket that entitles one to immortality is seriously messed up. And funnily, most actual professional athletes understand this. You can’t do what they do without knowing at a deep level that you’re asking more from your body than is reasonable and that one day the bill will come due. Really, it’s only the weekend warriors who don’t seem to get it.

      • This is why I don’t begrudge American pro football players their high salaries. They age their bodies incredibly playing that game. Pity they can’t pour it all into savings because they’re going to need it later.

        • Heh, yeah… you would have to pay me a LOT to stand there and let someone like Aaron Gibson run into me at a high speed! Really, it’s exactly what you said the other day… it’s all about trade offs.

          And just to be clear, I think any trade off that any consenting adult wants to make is just dandy. If someone wants to run marathons for fun and ends up needing a knee replacement, that’s fine by me. It’s even fine by me if it makes my insurance premium go up. Same for people who want to eat crap (be they fat or thin), smoke, climb mountains or work long hours.

          What I do object to is when bad information is proffered to a public that acts on it as if it were truth. When transfats are marketed as healthier than butter, but whoops, turn out to be worse. Or when running or pilates or low fat or no carb or whatever is sold as a guarantee of health and beauty and internal life, just to put a buck in someone’s pocket. And when it’s done with a government stamp of approval, it makes my blood pressure go up.

          I exercise a lot. I don’t think I exercise compulsively (though I do check in every now and then, because in our society it can be hard to tell if you’ve gone over the edge when a behavior is as exalted as the almighty gym is). But just because I do it a lot, doesn’t mean I buy into the bill of goods that’s being sold that it’s going to somehow magically keep the grim reaper away.

  13. “Enough” exercise, for me, means getting enough to stave off depression and fatigue.

    An hour of walking three times a week is plenty enough formal exercise for me right now, since my day also includes plenty of baby-juggling and toddler-wrangling and housework.

  14. I read somewhere that the average male who has played a lot of football has a life expectancy 12 years shorter than a man who never played football. It doesn’t surprise me, considering that football is NOT a ‘contact’ sport, but a collision sport. The human body is not made to take that kind of punishment.

    • Hmm… While I agree that American football is very hard on the body and it, frankly, wouldn’t surprise me to find it had a bad overall effect on longevity, I’m as suspicious of this statistic as I am of things linking obesity to shorter life (or obesity or exercise to longer life, either). I was about to write out a laundry list of ways such a study could be flawed, but I think that most of us who are used to spotting all the deeply deeply flawed crap that passes as “anti-obesity studies” can see how easy it would be to come up with such a number yet have it be utterly meaningless.

  15. That is true, Cassi, & a good thing to remember. I have indeed heard of many individul competitive athletes who have died young or relatively young, but that is also true of many people who never played sports. And I know as well as anyone that almost EVERYTHING that they attribute to obesity turns out not to be true & that fat has little overall effect on health or longevity, so why couldn’t the same be true of football? I have heard many retired players, though, talk about injuries, arthritis, chronic pain, etc., but that doesn’t equal premature death.

    • I have heard many retired players, though, talk about injuries, arthritis, chronic pain, etc.,

      Oh most definitely. One of the most painful things ever is to watch the likes of Bobby Orr or Cam Neely try to walk. Or perhaps “shuffle” is really a better word. (Am I dating myself using retired Bruins as examples?) There’s almost no doubt in my mind that the life of a pro or even college athlete is tough on the body. So is being a teamster, like my dad was. But then, so is being a desk jockey like I am.

      It’s just so incredibly easy to gloss over issues with studies that confirm our beliefs while zeroing in on every single flaw in the ones that we don’t agree with. As I get more educated (thanks to FA) on all the problems with the various obesity studies, I now take ALL of them with a big ol’ grain of salt and possibly some tequila.

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