How Hard Should I Work Out?

Make Sure You're Not Working Out Too Much for Weight Loss

how hard you should work out for weight loss
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Savvy exercisers often see promotional ads for hard workouts that promise big results. It leads them to wonder "how hard should I work out?" It doesn't matter if your goal is weight loss, improved fitness or improved performance in a particular sport.  There is an important place for easy, moderate, and hard workouts in every exerciser's schedule. 

Why Easy Workouts Matter

Low intensity exercise (easy workouts) increase your heart rate but not to the point that you have to breath heavily. On a scale of 1-10, low intensity exercise would rank between 4-6. Your heart rate during this type of activity would fall between 40-60 percent of your maximum heart rate. You should feel comfortable enough that you can continue the activity for a long period of time.

Some of your regular daily activities and chores may count as low-intensity exercise. For example, if you take your dog for a walk, go for a calorie-burning bike ride with the kids, or stroll to the grocery store to pick up dinner, these things might be considered low-intensity exercise. If weight loss is your goal, these activities will help you to stay active and burn extra calories. 

Benefits of low-intensity workouts. The value of this kind of low-key activity is that you can do a lot of it.

Low intensity workouts improve range of motion in your joints, lower your stress level, increase your total daily calorie expenditure and provide recovery from hard workouts that you may have scheduled during the week.

The Importance of Moderate-Intensity Workouts 

Experts often recommend moderate exercise for improved health and weight loss.

But what does that really mean? Moderate intensity might be one workload for a fit person and something totally different for someone who is new to exercise. How do you know if your workout falls into the moderate category?

When you are participating in moderate intensity exercise, you should feel like you are working but not working so hard that you need to quit in the next few minutes. You are breathing deeply but not gasping for breath. On a perceived exertion scale of 1-10, you should feel like you are working at a level of 6-7.

So how much moderate intensity activity is necessary? The American College of Sports Medicine offers guidelines for the amount of moderate intensity activity required to meet specific goals.

  • To see modest weight loss, exercise at a moderate intensity between 150 and 250 minutes per week.
  • To see clinically significant weight loss, you need to participate in moderate exercise for more than 250 minutes per week.
  • If you combine diet and exercise to lose weight, engage in moderate intensity exercise between 150 and 250 minutes per week.
  • To prevent weight gain after you've lost weight, engage in at least 250 minutes per week.

Benefits of moderate-intensity workouts. The benefit of moderate activity is that it allows you to maintain your calorie-burning session for a longer period of time.

Moderate exercise improves cardiorespiratory endurance, reduces stress, improves heart health and boosts your metabolism. Because the intensity level of a moderate workout is tolerable, you are able to do more of these workouts during the week without risking injury or burn out.

Hard Workouts for Fitness and Weight Loss

The most effective fat burning workouts are the sessions that you can only maintain for a short period of time. But you can't do hard workouts every day. Because the workouts are very intense, your body will require substantial recovery, both within the exercise session and in the days following the workout.

When you participate in high-intensity exercise you are breathing very deeply and on the verge of gasping for breath. You don't feel that you can maintain the activity for more than a few minutes. On a perceived exertion scale, you feel like you are working at a level of 8-9.

Because high intensity exercises can only be maintained for a short period of time, they are often programmed into interval-style workouts. A popular form of interval training is called high intensity interval training, or HIIT. To program a HIIT workout, you combine bursts of intense exercise that last 30 seconds to several minutes with short recovery periods that last 30 seconds or more.

Benefits of hard workouts. If you exercise to lose weight, high intensity workouts will do the trick. Experts have found that people who participate in high intensity interval workouts are more successful at losing weight and burning fat. High intensity exercise is also the most efficient. An intense workout will burn mega calories in a very short amount of time. 

But there are drawbacks to high intensity exercise. Only healthy exercisers should participate in HIIT workouts. These extreme sessions put you at higher risk for injury and burnout. Hard workouts also require low intensity recovery time in the days following the session. This is where careful exercise programming comes into play.

Combine Easy, Moderate and Hard Workouts 

If you are healthy enough for physical activity at every intensity level, plan 1-2 hard workouts during the week. These short workouts will help you burn maximum calories in minimum time. You'll also build muscle to boost your metabolism during these sessions.

But you should make sure that aren't working out too hard too often. So on the days following your hard workouts, give your body a rest by participating in low intensity exercise. The increased range of motion during these easy days will help your sore muscles recover more quickly and you will still increase your calorie burn for the day without taxing your body too much and risking burn out or injury.

Fill in the rest of your workout week with moderate intensity sessions. Challenge yourself by making these sessions longer. The calorie-burning benefits from these moderate workouts come from the duration of the session, not necessarily from the intensity.

Lastly, remember that if you work out to lose weight, you need to watch your diet as well. Make sure you eat the right amount of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables and healthy fat to fuel your workouts. Count calories, measure your exercise intensity and record the data in a weight loss journal to track your progress.


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Carey, DG. " Quantifying Differences in the "Fat Burning" Zone and the Aerobic Zone: Implications For Training." Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: October 2009.

Donnelly JE, Blair SN, Jakicic JM, Manore MM, Rankin JW, Smith BK; American College of Sports Medicine. "American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Appropriate Physical Activity Intervention Strategies for Weight Loss and Prevention of Weight Regain for Adults. July 2009.

Eric Doucet, Neil King, James A. Levine, and Robert Ross. "Update on Exercise and Weight Control." Journal of Obesity October 2011.

EG Trapp, DJ Chisholm, J Freund and SH Boutcher. " The Effects of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Training on Fat Loss and Fasting Insulin Levels of Young Women." International Journal of Obesity April 2008.