Published on June 16, 2022

Don’t Waste Time In The Gym

By W. Scott Black, M.D. for Messenger-Inquirer

Scott Black

According to recent statistics, the average life expectancy in the United States is about 78 years. That adds up to around 682,000 hours in a lifetime. Each and every one of those hours is precious; once one is gone, we can't get it back. So, it is smart to value each hour and spend it wisely.

This article's headline might have gotten a few readers' attention, hoping that I would reinforce a belief that exercise is unnecessary for good health. On the other hand, others might be hoping to learn about some new potion that's "just as good as exercise." I am sorry to disappoint those readers; this article is not about an alternative to exercise. Physical activity is essential to good health, and the gym is one of the best places to invest our valuable time. Instead, I am writing about getting as much benefit out of the time spent exercising as possible.

To get the most out of our time in the gym, we first need to think about what we hope to improve. If we are trying to get stronger, we need to train our strength. If we're trying to improve our breathing, we need to work on aerobic endurance. If we want to do both, we must split our time appropriately between the two. We also might want to improve our balance or flexibility. If that's the case, we'll also have to find time for that. So, the first step toward using our time best is identifying those things we need to improve and designing a training plan that addresses them. Several fitness tests have been developed to help people identify their opportunities for improvement. A fitness coach or personal trainer can also be a great resource to help identify areas that need work.

Designing a training plan to meet our needs best is related to the principle of specificity of exercise. Results of activity are specific to the type of exercise performed. For example, strength is best developed through resistance exercise using weights, machines, elastic bands, or body weight. Improved breathing is best improved through aerobic exercises involving walking, running, cycling, swimming, or even dancing. We won't develop much arm strength by running or cycling, and we won't improve our breathing very much by doing arm curls. It’s best if we choose exercises that best match our goals.

The next step toward using our time wisely is to choose exercises that make a meaningful difference. Unless one has unlimited time to spend in the gym, it's best to choose exercises that give us the most bang for the buck. We can choose exercises that require more muscle to perform. Spending five minutes doing arm curls might give us stronger biceps, but spending the same amount of time doing squats will develop strength in our lower legs, thighs, hips, back, and abdominal muscles. Choose compound exercises that use lots of muscles that cross multiple joints. Squats, lunges, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, and rows are all examples of strength exercises that accomplish this. Using good form is equally important, so this is another time a coach can provide valuable help.

Our final step in using time in the gym wisely is ensuring we get the correct dose. Just like with vitamins or medication, the right dose of exercise provides the best results. For aerobic exercise, the recommendations are to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (able to talk in short sentences but hard to carry on a lengthy conversation) five or more days per week. In other words, we should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate activity weekly. Depending on our goals, we might need to do a little more. For strength training, performing two or three sets of 8 – 12 repetitions of resistance exercise is good. Having enough weight on the bar makes the last set challenging to complete. At the end of the initial sets, we should feel like we could do a couple more repetitions if we had to.

In summary, it’s pretty easy to get the most out of the time we spend in the gym by following a few guidelines: 1) identify needs and prioritize training to address them; 2) choose exercises that provide a lot of return for the time invested; and 3) perform the right dose (volume and intensity) to get the best results.

Happy Training!

W. Scott Black, MD, is a primary care sports medicine physician with Owensboro Health Medical Group Lifestyle and Sports Medicine.

About Owensboro Health

Owensboro Health is a nonprofit health system with a mission to heal the sick and to improve the health of the communities it serves in Kentucky and Indiana. The system includes Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, nationally recognized for design, architecture and engineering; Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital; Owensboro Health Twin Lakes Medical Center; the Owensboro Health Medical Group comprised of over 200 providers at more than 20 locations; three outpatient Healthplex facilities, a certified medical fitness facility, the Healthpark; a surgical weight loss center and program, and the Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center.

On average each year, we have 16,000 inpatient admissions, deliver 2,000 babies and provide the region’s only Level III NICU. Owensboro Health physicians perform nearly 24,000 surgical procedures, including nearly 200 open-heart surgeries. Our physicians and staff have 70,000 Emergency Department visits, more than a million outpatient visits annually. Visit our home page for more information.