Workouts, Your Way
For satisfying results, tailor your exercise routine to fit your goals. 
Consumer Reports, November, 2006

Most people who start exercising quit within six months--often because they don't achieve the expected results. But instead of quitting, exercisers may just need to tweak their routines.

The most recent exercise recommendations for all Americans--at least 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week--are based on the minimum amount needed to promote overall health and prevent disease. But simply getting the prescribed half-hour a day of something may not yield the results you want if you're seeking a more specific goal, such as losing weight, reducing stress, improving your sleep, or boosting your aerobic capacity. What's more, exercise needs shift with age, as strength, flexibility, and balance become more important.

This report offers guidance for adapting the current exercise recommendations to six fitness-related goals. In some cases,you won't even need to lengthen or intensify your workouts. Instead, you can just change the activities you choose and how you allocate your exercise time.


Public-health experts agree that reducing the risk of chronic disease requires doing moderately intense aerobic-style activity for at least a half-hour on most days. Longer or more vigorous exercise may provide further protection. In addition, experts say all adults should get at least one session per week of strength training for the major muscle groups (chest, arms, shoulders, abdominal, back, and legs), to protect the bones and stave off the normal age-related decline in muscle mass. And they should stretch at least every other day, ideally after workouts.

Moderately intense activity makes you breathe harder than usual but still allows you to talk. Common examples include brisk walking, swimming, cycling, and dancing, although some people may need easier or harder activities. To find the right intensity for you, rate your perceived exertion--how hard you feel you're working--on a scale of 1 (almost no effort) to 10 (nearly your maximum). Moderate exercise feels like a 3 or 4.

The minutes don't have to be continuous. Three 10-minute bouts are about as beneficial as one longer session, provided the total amount is the same.

  • The tweak: Longer aerobic sessions--at least 60 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week.

  • Why: To lose weight, you must burn a lot of calories.That means exercising longer, more vigorously, or both. For many overweight people, it's hard to sustain vigorous exercise long enough to burn sufficient calories. So it's generally best to log more minutes at a moderate pace.

  • What to do: Start with the minimum prescription for health benefits, then slowly build up to at least an hour of moderate activity five or more days a week. To avoid boredom or muscle fatigue, vary your activities from day to day or even within a single session. For example, move from the treadmill to the recumbent bike to the elliptical trainer.

    Or try interval training, which also helps you burn more calories in the same amount of time. That approach involves bursts of vigorous exercise sandwiched between periods of easier exercise that allow your body to recuperate.Try alternating 5 minutes of moderately paced walking with 5 minutes at a faster speed. If you're in better shape, alternate brisk walking with bursts of jogging.

  • The tweak: Incorporate some mind-body exercises such as yoga or tai chi. And try applying mindfulness--attention to the present moment--to your aerobic-style exercise.

  • Why: Yoga and related exercises induce various physiological changes, including reduced blood pressure and heart rate, that can counteract the harmful effects of stress. Bringing focus and awareness to any exercise you do can enhance the stress-relieving benefits, in part by blocking out distracting, worrisome thoughts. And mind-body exercises help you learn other relaxation techniques, such as deep abdominal breathing, that you can use anytime. In addition, aerobic-style exercise has major benefits for reducing stress, as well as for improving mood and easing moderate anxiety and depression. Some people report feeling exhilarated after a vigorous workout-- sometimes called a "runner's high."

  • What to do: For optimal benefits, do some mind-body exercise as well as aerobic-style workouts. Consider signing up for a local yoga, tai chi, or similar class. Or buy a video for home workouts. You'll find many at:

  • The tweak: Do aerobic-style exercise in the morning, stretching and relaxation at any time.

  • Why: Aerobic-style exercise, particularly early in the day, can improve sleep in middle-aged or older adults, who often have trouble falling or staying asleep. Experts theorize that morning workouts may help adjust the internal clock that governs the sleep-wake cycle. Stretching and other relaxation methods at any time may also promote slumber. Longer aerobic-style workouts--an hour or more--appear to provide the greatest benefits.

  • What to do: Since joints are stiffest and muscles tightest just after you wake up, it's particularly important to warm up and stretch briefly before morning workouts. Try to do additional stretching or mind-body exercises (see "Reduce Stress," above) after your aerobic-style workout or later in the day. If you can't exercise in the morning, doing so in the afternoon or early evening can also improve sleep.The most important thing may be to find a time that's convenient and that you can stick with, our consultants say. If weather permits, consider exercising outdoors, where the exposure to daylight may further benefit sleep.

  • The tweak: Exercise faster or harder.

  • Why: Aerobic (or cardiovascular) fitness is the ability of the heart and lungs to supply the muscles with enough oxygen during exertion--when you climb stairs quickly, for example. Increasing such fitness requires a more vigorous pace than recommended for health benefits or weight loss.

  • What to do: Aim for a total of at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity three times a week. Vigorous feels like a 6 to 8 on the 10-point perceived exertion scale (though less-fit individuals should not go beyond 7). Beginners may reach that level just by walking fast; others may need to jog, do low-impact step aerobics, or walk on hilly terrain with light hand weights, for example. Interval training (see "Lose Weight," above) can help you incorporate more-vigorous activity. Note that if you're sedentary and middle-aged or older, you should see a doctor before starting an aerobic exercise program.

  • The tweak: Add one or two additional sessions a week of strength training, plus further sets for specific muscle groups if desired.

  • Why: Strength training can help prevent osteoporosis and falls, boost endurance and athletic performance, increase your calorie-burning rate, and improve your appearance.

  • What to do: For people younger than age 60, three strength-training sessions per week provide maximum improvement. But just two sessions a week can still generally provide substantial benefits (and are better for older exercisers; see "Age Healthfully," below). Start with a weight or other resistance that lets you do just 8 repetitions per set (10 if you're out of shape) for each major muscle group. Once you can comfortably do 12 reps (15 if you're out of shape), gradually increase the resistance until you can do just 8 again. Allow at least one day of recovery time between sessions.

    For beginners, a single set of repetitions is enough for each major muscle group. For those seeking more-sculpted muscles, studies1 suggest that two sets work nearly as well as three. If you don't enjoy traditional strength training, try Pilates or more-active forms of yoga, such as Iyengar, all of which can yield some muscle-building benefits.

  • The tweak: Increase emphasis on exercises for strength and flexibility, but with a somewhat gentler approach.

  • Why: As you age, strength and flexibility become increasingly crucial for preventing falls, maintaining mobility, and doing everyday tasks. But older people need more rest between strengthening sessions, and slightly lower-impact activities to reduce the risk of injury or falls.

  • What to do: To squeeze in the extra exercise, consider an activity like yoga or Pilates, which incorporates stretching, strengthening, and balance. Otherwise, strength-train twice a week, using somewhat lighter weights, more repetitions (10 to 15 rather than 8 to 12), and more time (two days) between sessions. At a minimum,do stretching exercises at least two to three times per week, ideally after other exercise when your muscles are warm. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds for each major muscle group. And still aim for at least four aerobic-style workouts a week to preserve or increase cardiovascular capacity. If brisk walking or other weight-bearing exercise has become difficult, switch to water exercise. For useful balance exercises, see:


    1 Rhea MS, et al. "A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development," Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, March 2003, pp. 456-464.


    National Institute on Aging. "Fitness Over Fifty," New York: Healthy Living Books, 2006.

    King AC, et al. "Moderate-intensity exercise and self-rated quality of sleep in older adults: A randomized controlled trial," Journal of the American Medical Association, January 1997, pp. 32-37.

    Michalsen A, et al. "Rapid stress reduction and anxiolysis among distressed women as a consequence of a three-month intensive yoga program," Medical Science Monitor, December 2005, pp. CR555-561.

    Taylor-Piliae RE, et al. "Change in perceived psychosocial status following a 12-week Tai Chi exercise programme," Journal of Advanced Nursing, May 2006, pp. 313-329.

    Tworoger, SS, et al. "Effects of a yearlong moderate-intensity exercise and a stretching intervention on sleep quality in postmenopausal women," Sleep, Nov. 1, 2003, pp. 830-6.

    Youngstedt SD. "Effects of exercise on sleep," Clinics in Sports Medicine, April 2005, pp. 355-365.

    Quick guide to customized workouts

    Here's a summary of the basic exercise prescription, followed by the adjustments needed to meet specific goals. For more details, see the main story.

    Workout Chart - must be online to view

    Illustration by Jason Lee

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