Build Your Perfect Workout Week

You know there's more to fitness than walking every day. But you're not sure just how much more if you really want to be healthy and energetic, do you have to lift weights? Stretch? Meditate? And how can any busy person possibly do it all?

It's not as hard as it may seem. By understanding some basic training principles and with a little creative time management, you can balance the five core elements of long-term health and fitness aerobic conditioning, strength, flexibility, balance and agility, and stress reduction in an average of just an hour per day.

Sure, you could do more if you had time, but who has time? And in just seven hours a week, you can make progress on improving all five of the key elements of health. Within those seven hours, we propose that a minimum of four should have an aerobic component, two should be strength builders, one should help with flexibility, one should aid balance and agility, and at least an hour (and probably more) should have a stress-reducing effect.

Of course, some activities accomplish two goals at once such as yoga, which counts for flexibility and stress reduction. We've mixed gym and home workouts, including a few videos, but they're all just examples to help you create a plan that fits your interests and budget. Use these sample weeks to make your program work. You'll fit in all the fitness you need, no sweat.

Alternate harder and easier days
Occasional intense exercise is the key to building real fitness and to time-efficient workouts. But giving the muscles a chance to recover is critical to making improvements. So if you spend one day bicycling fast on hilly terrain, a comfortably paced walk the next day is actually better for you than riding hard again.

Vary longer and shorter efforts
Long, moderate-intensity efforts are endurance builders and fat burners, but several in a row can leave a body feeling fatigued and stale. So follow longer days with shorter ones.

Mix up your muscles
To look and feel your best, use lots of different muscles in lots of different ways. Some exercises should require strength, others should be the low-load, repetitive movements of aerobic activity, some should challenge your balance and agility, and still others should enhance flexibility. But once you've chosen a variety of exercises, be consistent. Letting yourself get good at things is good for you.

Don't make this month just like last month
Planning an easier week with fewer long and intense sessions every six to eight weeks can stave off staleness.

The rest of life matters
A long plane flight can leave you feeling like you've had a workout without the benefits. Similarly, lost sleep, poor diet, and tension at work or home can all stress your system. Often exercising at a low intensity not skipping it altogether is the best choice when stresses appear.

WEEK 1

Monday

Walk 30 minutes, moderate pace (benefit: aerobic)

Pilates class or video, 45 minutes (benefit: balance, flexibility, strength)

Tuesday

Walk with a partner, 40 minutes; push each other (benefit: aerobic)

Wednesday

Bike ride, 30 minutes; pedal the whole time (benefit: aerobic, balance)

Lift weights, 30 minutes (benefit: strength)

Thursday

Off. (OK once a week on busiest day.)

Friday

Yoga class or video, 60 minutes (benefit: balance, flexibility, stress reduction)

Saturday

Hike challenging terrain, 2 hours (benefit: aerobic, balance, stress reduction)

Sunday

Tennis game, 45 minutes; play hard (benefits: balance, aerobic)

Stretch video, 20 minutes (benefits: flexibility, stress reduction)

WEEK 2

Monday

Walk 20 minutes, moderate pace (benefit: aerobic, stress reduction)

Tuesday

Walk intervals, 45 minutes: 10-minute warm-up, then two minutes at full speed, followed by three minutes easy (five times); 10-minute cool-down (benefit: aerobic)

Lift weights, 30 minutes (benefit: strength)

Wednesday

Tai chi class or video, 60 minutes (benefit: balance, flexibility, stress reduction)

Thursday

Walk 20 minutes, fast (benefit: aerobic)

Stretch or yoga video, 20 minutes (benefit: flexibility, stress reduction)

Friday

Spin class or StairMaster set for intense intervals, 40 minutes (Benefit: aerobic)

Lift weights, 30 minutes (benefit: strength)

Saturday

Backyard sports, such as volleyball, 60 minutes (benefit: balance, aerobic)

Stretch video, 15 minutes (benefit: flexibility)

Sunday

Bike, 60 minutes (benefit: aerobic)

Swim or aqua-aerobics, 20 minutes (benefit: aerobic, flexibility, strength)

Strength
At least: Once a week, a routine of 58 exercises that use all the major muscle groups; target a resistance level that has you just able to finish a set of eight to 12 repetitions for each exercise.
Ideally: Increase to 23 weekly workouts; incorporate multi-muscle group moves, like push-ups and squats, that build overall strength and coordination.

Balance and agility
At least: Informally challenge your balance and agility whenever you have the opportunity, from dancing to walking on curbs.
Ideally: Once a week, try an aerobic or strength activity which has a strong balance requirement.
Sample activities: Dancing, tai chi, rowing, hiking, rock climbing, skiing, skating, cycling, volleyball, martial arts, and tennis.

Stress reduction
At least: 12 of your aerobic outings each week should be comfortable, don't-have-to-think-about-it efforts: walking a familiar route, a relaxing swim.
Ideally: For 23 more days a week, find 20 minutes for conscious relaxation, like tai chi or meditation.
Sample activities: Yoga, tai chi, as well as any repetitive activity that comes easily to you and is done at low intensity, such as meditative walking or swimming.

Flexibility
At least: Do about 12 minutes each of three to four different kinds of stretches after every workout.
Ideally: In addition, 12 days per week have a concentrated session of 30 to 60 minutes of flexibility-enhancing activity. Not sure how to stretch? The "ACSM Fitness Book" (Human Kinetics, 1997) offers clear instruction.

Aerobic conditioning
At least: For six days a week, 20 to 30 minutes of continuous activity; at least two days, you should be breathing hard enough to notice the effort.
Ideally: For three to five days a week, extend your activity into the 40- to 60-minute range, and be sure to sweat. Mix higher-intensity and longer workouts.

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