How Much Do You Need To Work Out, Really?

This time in 2013, fitness was the last thing on my mind. The year before, I'd been a devoted super-yogi, hitting the mat at 7 a.m. (and often again at 7 p.m.), but the truth was, I had a lot less of a life to lead. Then, I started working here, writing more, being more social, and, soon after, fell bonkers in love. I didn't consciously quit fitness — I just needed to spend more quality time with my boyfriend, my friends, and my laptop. If that meant skipping a class here and there, what was the harm? Cut to last fall's Warrior Workout hissy fit and the birth of The Anti-Diet Project. I had goals, and I had questions. Top of the list: How do you incorporate fitness into a daily routine? (Subtext: How do I do this and still have a life?)
The not-so-exciting answer? Get up earlier.
Sorry, everyone. Until Professor McGonagall gets my Time-Turner back from Hermione, I have no other solution to offer except that we have to use the time we've got. Here's the thing, though — once I resigned myself to that fact, it turned out I had more than enough.
The amount of exercise individuals need is a much-debated topic. Some studies say 30 minutes of cardio, others say weight-lifting only, while a lot of people just stick with 10,000 steps a day and leave it at that. The Department of Health and Human Services reports (via the Mayo Clinic) that an average adult should aim for "at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity." As for strength training? "Do strength training exercises at least twice a week" — no time specified. At first, I thought this assessment left way too much wiggle room for me to wiggle out through. Then, I realized this was a statement for the general public, and no government guideline, however well meaning, would be able to tell every single American citizen exactly how much time he or she needs to spend on the elliptical. I needed to do the legwork myself. Similar to my eating, this was another problem solved only by listening to and learning from what my body told me. In this case, I had a little help with the translation: my trainer, Stephanie.
Working with a trainer is a luxury, I realize. From the start, I made it clear this was not in my forever plan (or forever budget). But, as someone who's never been naturally athletic, I knew this was one area where I shouldn't just wing it. I went to musical-theater high school, where my fitness requirement was fulfilled by a biweekly jazz class. (Note: Real dancers are in great shape, but if you spent 40 minutes doing "sunset arms" in the back of the room, Bob Fosse you are not.) During my brief bouts of gym obsession, I'd sustained a few injuries because of simple idiocy. That made it all the more easy to cop out and take it easy for a few weeks/years. This time, I was determined to do it regularly and reasonably.
Then, there was the time issue. Given the promise I made to myself that I was not going to sacrifice my life for my fitness routine, the only recourse I had was to set my alarm an hour earlier. But, but, what about nights I spent at my boyfriend's?! Set the alarm earlier. But, what about when I've been up later than usual? Set the alarm earlier. But, what if I had two too many cocktails last night?! Sucks to be you — better set that alarm. I really thought that early wake-up call was going to be the worst part of this whole project. But, it turns out, I'm a grown-up now. It took approximately one week and zero hissy fits to get used to this new schedule. Maybe I'm more of a morning person, but if you've seen me before 8 a.m., you know that's just not true. I think this is simply not that hard.
Just to be super-duper sure there was no magic formula that everyone knew but me, I reached out to Dr. Frank Lipman: "It's really impossible to answer this question as though there's one right thing for everyone. Just like diet, every body is different when it comes to the exercise that will serve it best. For example, someone who is carrying extra weight and has no movement in their life currently would totally be served by walking. Someone super fit probably won't really get a boost from that (though it obviously wouldn't hurt). Rather than trying to apply a set list of rules and 'doing it right,' people would be best served by finding an exercise that they enjoy and doing it often. Don't make it too complicated."
So, yeah, sorry. There's no magic here.
The first thing I learned is to start slow. Going in full-blast is what got me hurt or burned out in the past. I started with 20 to 30 minutes of various cardiovascular and strengthening exercises, all carefully planned out with Stephanie. Then, every week or so, she'd take it up a notch. It was as if she set me into a pot of warm water, then slowly turned up the heat until we got a real boil going. Except, a better analogy. (Please note: My trainer isn't trying to slowly kill me. I'm, like, 80% sure of that.) The key is consistency. The routine and intensity level changed, but the schedule stays the same: five days a week.
Perhaps that sounds like a lot to you, but remember: I don't run a marathon each day. In order not to wear out one area of my body (or get bored out of my mind), I mix it up. Some days are lighter than others, but I do sweat every day. Unless I'm sick or on vacation or, I don't know, my cat explodes, I start the day this way. I look forward to that tomato face smiling at me in the mirror.
I'm learning a lot from my body's response to this new activity level. For example, I can't work out more than four days in a row or my joints get achy, and I will be mad at EVERYONE. I also learned that working out in the morning changes my energy level throughout the day. But, really and truly, the most important lesson I've learned — the thing I hang on to when I wake up grumpy and itching for the snooze button — is that I can do this. I really can. I can actually have a life and a fitness routine that I don't mind doing every day (possibly even enjoy). I never thought I'd be one of "those people" — those cyborgs who hit the gym daily, come rain, shine, or hellfire. But, maybe, they're not so strange. Maybe they're just like me — people who want to have their cake, their life, and their tomato face, too.
The Anti-Diet Project runs every week in January! Catch the next installment next Monday. Until then, you can follow my progress at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject on Instagram and Twitter — and join in! Show me your tomato face, too! (You can also show me cake. Always.)

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