Maintenance mode – how much exercise is just enough?

by Richard Adams in Education


It’s great to set goals with exercise.  Getting that bit stronger, that bit faster, or able to go further or longer.  But often we find ourselves with little time or perhaps motivation to push ourselves and progress.  Sometimes we just want to keep the fitness we have.  The question is, how much exercise do we need to do to maintain what we have?  What do we need to do to just stay where we are?

A recent research review suggests that it’s really not all that much.  For cardiovascular fitness (as measured by VO2 max), just 13 minutes of relatively high intensity exercise twice per week is enough to maintain your current level.  For strength (as measured by 1RM or 1 rep max), just one set of each exercise is necessary per week, provided that during the set you reach maximum effort by the final repetition).   For maintaining muscle volume, there is a slightly different finding for the older population (60-75 years of age) when compared to young people (20-35 years), Older people need to do two sessions per week, with 2-3 sets per session to maintain muscle size, whereas for younger people it’s just a single set once per week.

So if you’re say used to running 5k 2-3 times per week, and doing strength training twice a week, with 2-3 sets of exercises for each muscle group per workout, then to stay where you are fitness wise you could significantly reduce that, even as far as running half as far twice per week, and reducing strength training to as low as one much shorter session.

This ‘maintenance mode’ may not last forever. The research suggests that exercising in this way would maintain cardiovascular fitness for 15 weeks, and strength/muscle size for 32 weeks.  Nevertheless, it’s useful to know what you need to do just to stand still.  The key appears to be exercising every week, maintaining intensity, but reducing the duration or volume of the sessions. My takeaway is that if I’m pressed for time, then a short sharp workout is massively beneficial versus doing nothing at all.

Infographic from Clément Lanfranchi (@clemlanf)

Paper referenced: Maintaining Physical Performance: The Minimal Dose of Exercise Needed to Preserve Endurance and Strength Over Time (Barry A Spiering Iñigo Mujika Marilyn A Sharp Stephen A Foulis), May 2021