The Secret To Exercise: Research Shows It’s How Often You Do It, Not How Much

Strength Fitness Health Concept

The study found that it is better to spread out your exercise throughout the week than to do it all at once.

Everyone agrees that exercise is important but is it better to work out a lot a few times each week or a little bit each day?

So, should I work out for longer once a week or a little bit each day?

It’s a conundrum that many health-conscious people face, and a new study from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has a solution. This recent study reveals a little bit of daily activity might well be the most beneficial approach, at least for muscular strength. Fortunately, it also implies that you don’t need to put in a ton of effort every day.

In a four-week training study conducted in partnership with Niigata University and Nishi Kyushu University in Japan, three participant groups each performed an arm resistance exercise while improvements in muscle strength and thickness were measured and compared.

The workout included doing “maximal voluntary eccentric bicep contractions” on a machine that gauges the strength of your muscles throughout each muscle contraction you would do in a gym. An eccentric contraction is when the muscle lengthens; in the case of a bicep curl, this would be similar to lowering a large dumbbell.

Ken Nosaka

Edith Cowan University Exercise and Sports Science Professor Ken Nosaka. Credit: Edith Cowan University

One group performed six contractions a day, five days a week (6×5 group), whereas the other crammed all 30 on one day, once a week (30×1 group). Both groups performed 30 contractions every week. Another group did just six contractions once a week.

After four weeks, the group doing 30 contractions per day did not show any improvement in muscular strength, although muscle thickness (a sign of increasing muscle size) grew by 5.8%. The muscles’ strength and thickness did not change in the group doing six contractions once each week. However, the 6×5 group saw comparable gains in muscle thickness to the 30×1 group and substantial increases in muscular strength of more than 10%.

Frequency, not volume

Importantly, the increase in muscle strength of the 6×5 group was similar to the group in a previous study that performed only one three-second maximal eccentric contraction per day for five days a week for four weeks.

ECU Exercise and Sports Science Professor Ken Nosaka said these studies continue to suggest very manageable amounts of exercise done regularly can have a real effect on people’s strength.

“People think they have to do a lengthy session of resistance training in the gym, but that’s not the case,” he said. “Just lowering a heavy dumbbell slowly once or six times a day is enough.”

Professor Nosaka said while the study required participants to exert maximum effort, early findings from current, ongoing research indicated similar results could be achieved without needing to push as hard as possible.

“We only used the bicep curl exercise in this study, but we believe this would be the case for other muscles also, at least to some extent,” he said.

“Muscle strength is important to our health. This could help prevent a decrease in muscle mass and strength with aging. A decrease in muscle mass is a cause of many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, dementia, plus musculoskeletal problems such as osteoporosis.”

Rest up

It is not yet known precisely why the body responds better to resistance exercises with eccentric contractions in smaller doses rather than bigger loads less frequently.

Professor Nosaka said it may relate to how often the brain is asked to make a muscle perform in a particular manner.

However, he stressed it was also important to include rest in an exercise regimen.

“In this study, the 6×5 group had two days off per week,” he said.

“Muscle adaptions occur when we are resting; if someone was able to somehow train 24 hours a day, there would actually be no improvement at all.

“Muscles need rest to improve their strength and their muscle mass, but muscles appear to like to be stimulated more frequently.”

He also highlighted if someone was unable to exercise for a period, there was no value in trying to “make up” for it with a longer session later.

“If someone’s sick and can’t exercise for a week, that’s fine, but it is better to just return to a regular exercise routine when you’re feeling better,” he said.

Clarifying advice

Current Australian Government guidelines already indicate adults should try to be active every day and perform 2.5-5 hours of moderate physical activity per week.

Professor Nosaka said there needed to be more emphasis on the importance of making exercise a daily activity, rather than hitting a weekly minute goal.

“If you’re just going to the gym once a week, it’s not as effective as doing a bit of exercise every day at home,” he said.

“This research, together with our previous study, suggests the importance of accumulating a small amount of exercise a week, then just spending hours exercising once a week.

“We need to know that every muscle contraction counts, and it’s how regularly you perform them that counts.”

Reference: “Greater effects by performing a small number of eccentric contractions daily than a larger number of them once a week” by Riku Yoshida, Shigeru Sato, Kazuki Kasahara, Yuta Murakami, Fu Murakoshi, Kodai Aizawa, Ryoma Koizumi, Kazunori Nosaka and Masatoshi Nakamura, 31 July 2022, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.
DOI: 10.1111/sms.14220

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