Posted: August 26, 2022 at 1:16 pm

When it comes to fitness and getting in shape one thing you hear a lot is “something is better than nothing.”  Going for one 20-min walk per week is better than nothing.  Doing one set of push ups is better than nothing.  In some ways this statement is true, and yet simultaneously I notice it doing more harm than good.  Let’s dive into it.

Looking at the big picture, I never want to discourage anyone from exercising.  In fact, what I want is quite the opposite: I want to help get more people exercising on a regular basis.  I want to help people find ways to incorporate exercise into their lifestyle that are safe, sustainable, effective, and enjoyable.  Most people do no structured exercise or physical activity – so helping them find something they feel comfortable doing and getting into a routine of doing it consistently is step one.  For example, meeting up with friends for a weekly walk on Saturday mornings can be a great first step.

However, something like the 1x per week walk described above is insufficient for making real changes in fitness level.  It can be a starting point, however it must be built on if real changes are the goal.  Many people are familiar with the term “minimum effective dose” which is usually in reference to a medication, but is also used quite a bit in the fitness industry.  The example above of the 1x weekly walk is simultaneously “better than nothing” and also below the minimum effective dose.

Why point this out?  I am concerned that the saying “something is better than nothing” is starting to be mis-interpreted by many people … instead of its literal meaning, it is starting to be interpreted as something along the lines of “any amount of exercise is sufficient.” Unfortunately, the latter is categorically untrue for those people who genuinely do want to see real changes in their fitness level.

A couple non-exercise examples will probably be helpful to put it into perspective:

  • When you were in school your teacher or professor probably assigned reading to help you prepare for an upcoming exam.  Let’s say that you were assigned fifty pages of reading, but you only read two pages; obviously you would not be prepared to succeed on the exam.  In fact, in all likelihood you would fail the exam … yet two pages of reading is technically better than none.
  • As another example, let’s say that you are trying to save money for something (a down payment on a house, retirement, etc.).  You meet with your financial planner and they tell you that you need to save a specific amount each month; for the sake of this example let’s call it $500/month.  From there, the only action you take is to skip one coffee per week and save that $25/month … obviously that is far from the $500 you need to reach your goal, and yet it is technically better than nothing.

I hope to provide helpful information and guidance to those who genuinely do want to make changes to their fitness level, and part of that process is being transparent about what the minimum effective dose really is.  Just like reading two pages is not enough when you actually need to read fifty, and just like saving $25/month is not enough when you actually need to save $500, in fitness it is helpful to communicate what it is really going to take to accomplish the goals that you have.  I would hate for someone to be willing to put in the necessary work to achieve their desired result, only to not see the progress they want because they’ve been mis-lead into thinking what they are doing is sufficient, when in reality it is not.

The most effective form of exercise to improve fitness and transform your body is strength training, so if you only dedicate time & energy for one form of exercise that is what it should be.  In my opinion, the minimum effective dose to deliver the results most people want is to strength train for at least 90-min per week.  These 90-min should emphasize compound movements (multi-joint exercises, as opposed to isolation exercises) and focus on lifting heavy weights – weights heavy enough that you could not lift it 20x in a row even if you were promised a winning Powerball ticket.  Two weekly sessions of 45-min each is a great way to do this, and I’ve known people who have even done 3x 30min sessions.  

If you are not in a good position to do 90-min (or more) per week yet, that is OK.  It is true that you do have to start somewhere, so start by doing whatever you can in order to get a routine established.  Just don’t fall into the trap of believing that doing less than that is going to give you the results you are looking for.  Be proud of yourself for including some exercise into your weekly routine, and at the same time stay motivated to keep building that habit until you are consistently getting 90+ min of strength training every week.

To clarify, I consider 90-min per week the minimum effective dose, not to be confused with the dose to get the fastest or best results.  There are certainly people out there who enjoy working out and want more results, so they train more than 90-min per week.  

Interestingly, after I had already written the majority of this article, I saw a post on Instagram on nearly the same topic.  The post was from Dr. John Rusin, who is a physical therapist and a big believer in strength training.  You can see his post above, and I’m sure some of the similarities of what he wrote will jump out at you as echoing what I wrote above.

-Tony Gracia


Tony GraciaView Posts