You want to tone up for vacation, a wedding, or summer break. But just how long does it take to get into shape?
That is one of the most common questions in fitness, yet I can assure you that you won't like my answer: It depends. How long it takes to get fit depends on your definition of "in shape," your current level of fitness, the time allocated to your workouts, and how healthy your eating habits are.
While everyone talks about getting in shape, this two-word phrase comes with no concrete definition attached. Therefore, I encourage clients to focus on seeing change — change in their bodies, their energy levels, and the kilos they can lift. And while the amount of time required to see results varies person to person, you can expect to see changes within 6-12 weeks.
Below, I describe how long it takes to get in shape, lifestyle changes required to see a difference in your body, and why the timeline toward results varies person to person.
How Long Does It Take To Get Into Shape?
Again, it depends. How long it takes to see changes in your fitness level depends on a number of factors, including:
1. What's Your Definition of "In Shape"?
Being in shape means something different to different people. If you ran track in high school, you might want to get in shape so you can run a 6-minute 1600 meter (1 mile) again. Or, if you have a family at home, perhaps being in shape means being able to keep up with your kids at the park.
You cannot reach a goal if you don't know what that goal is in the first place. Therefore, you need to get very specific about what being in shape means to you. Does being in shape mean benching your bodyweight? Losing 10 pounds? Being able to sprint up and down the basketball court? Set your definition of "in shape" first — then get to work.
2. What's Your Current Fitness Level?
What's your current fitness routine? How many days per week do you work out? When was the last time you followed a consistent schedule in regards to wellness?
How fit you are now will influence how long it takes you to get in shape. For example, if you already work out five days a week but want to tone it up for an upcoming beach vacation, you may be able to hit your goal in 2-4 weeks. On the other hand, if you're coming off 6-12 weeks of inactivity, it could take you 6-8 weeks to see the progress you want.
No matter your fitness level, it's important to have patience with yourself. While you may not be at your target in the next four weeks, remember: If you stay consistent, you'll be further along in four weeks than you are now.
3. What Unhealthy or Healthy Habits Will Influence Your Timeline?
How long it takes you to get in shape isn't just influenced by your exercise routine. Instead, a number of lifestyle factors — how sedentary your job is, how healthy your eating habits are, and how high your stress levels are — can shorten or lengthen the amount of time between you and your goal.
If you want to get serious about your fitness goals, you simply have to look beyond your workouts. Where can you make wiser, healthier choices in your daily life? Could you walk or bike to work, rather than drive? Could you swap out high-fat or high-sugar snacks for fresh fruits or vegetables? Could you turn off all electronics two hours before bed to improve your sleep hygiene? Would you consider picking up meditation or yoga to reduce your stress levels?
You have a choice: You can either change your unhealthy habits, or accept that it will take a lot longer to reach your goals. (Personally, I'd choose the former.) To get in shape faster, I recommend making small changes to your diet, daily activity (such as how many times you stand up or take a walk), sleep quality, and unnecessary stress.
How Long It Takes To Hit a Number of Goals
The first step to understanding how long it takes to get in shape is to set a specific goal. When getting in shape is no longer an ambiguous term, you can set a realistic timeline.
Please note: The timelines offered below are extremely generic. How long it takes you to reach these goals will depend on a number of factors (as described above):
- Run a 5k: Even if you're a beginner, you can most likely train for a 5k in as little as 4-8 weeks. You should set a goal to run a minimum of three days a week, with at least one strength training workout mixed into your training.
- Run a marathon: If you want to run a marathon, you should expect to train for 12-20 weeks (up to six months). A number of things can go with running this exceeding distance, so resistance training and recovery work should be a regular part of your routine.
- Train for a fitness competition: If you aim to participate in a fitness competition (or an obstacle race), expect your training to take between 5-7 months. Note that dieting will become a heavy part of your training regimen, with a focus on significant carb cutting.
- Lose 5 kilos (11 pounds): The time it takes to accomplish a weight loss goal depends heavily on your current body composition. Typically, you can hope to lose 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) every 1-2 weeks, taking you 5-10 weeks to lose 5 kilos.
- Bench your bodyweight: If you hope to bench your bodyweight, it could take two months to a year of training, depending on your current fitness level. For example, if you have little upper body muscular strength, it could take a full year to bench your weight.
- Add lean muscle: Again, how long it takes to add muscle mass depends on your current training program. If you're an experienced weightlifter, you might add definition in as little as three weeks, while someone inexperienced with strength training might have to wait eight weeks.
- Do 20 pushups: If you're working to do your first pushup, it could take 6-8 weeks of a regular exercise program to complete one. However, if you can already do a pushup with good form, you could probably do 20 within four weeks of training.
7 Strategies To Get in Shape in Less Time
The amount of time it takes you to get in shape depends on your diet, your training routine, and your ability to stay away from injuries. If you want to shorten the amount of time it takes to hit your goals, you'll want to address the following:
1. Follow a Well-Balanced Exercise Plan
If you're a beginner to strength and cardiovascular fitness, you run the risk of wasting time at the gym if you don’t follow a plan. Therefore, I recommend signing up with a personal trainer (many gyms offer free first-time consultations), taking a class, or following an online program, like Build Bullet-Proof Health.
If you choose random exercises or workouts that are not backed by science, you run the risk of:
- Choosing exercises that don't align with your goals
- Not balancing your exercises, or overloading certain muscle groups
- Injuring yourself, which will definitely lengthen the time it takes to get in shape
2. Be Diligent About Your Recovery Work
When beginning a new workout routine, you run a significant risk of injury. If you get injured, you will prolong the amount of time it takes to get in shape.
Make injury prevention a cornerstone in your workout routine, being diligent about your recovery work. Take the time to foam roll before and after your workout, or book yourself a massage as a treat. Be sure to stretch after all physical activity. Lastly, if you have a nagging injury, don't hesitate to seek medical advice, asking your physical therapist about dry needling and other techniques.
3. Take a Break When You Need it
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes working out too much can put you further from your goals.
Once you get in the habit of working out, it's easy to succumb to overtraining. This is especially true for those who want to get in shape because of a certain deadline — a high school reunion, trip, or wedding. Don't workout twice in one day, and try to space an active recovery between your most intense workouts (like HIIT classes or heavy lifts).
In my article Take a Step Back: Avoid Injuries Due To Overuse or Overtraining I introduce the WHOOP system. It’s great to measure your level of recovery. You can use this to determine the optimal level of training intensity without risking overtraining. Use my WHOOP link and we both get one month of WHOOP for free.
4. Strike a Balance Between Cardio and Strength
For most people, getting in shape requires a balance between strength and cardiovascular fitness. Plus, cutting body fat, increasing your VO2 max, and adding lean muscle is best accomplished through a combination of strength and cardio workouts.
To strike the right balance between strength and cardio, again — I recommend following a fitness program built by a wellness professional. Working with a personal trainer can help you get the most from your workouts and prevent overtraining.
5. Make Your Workouts a Habit
Experienced exercisers will tell you: Deciding whether or not to work out is something they don't think about. Just like brushing their teeth or checking their email, it's just another part of their day.
Luckily, exercise offers a number of mental benefits that (once you get past the initial uncomfortable stage) will make your workouts hard to miss. But if you're struggling to make exercise part of your weekly routine, try these tips to make it habit:
- Get a workout buddy, who can help hold you accountable
- Set a designated workout time, and write down your workouts in your calendar
- Make "work out" part of your to-do list, making it satisfying to check off
6. Prioritize Nutrition Like You Prioritize Exercise
Unhealthy eating habits will only deter you from your goals. Therefore, in order to shorten the amount of time it takes to get in shape, make proper nutrition a top priority.
Start looking at food as the fuel that energizes your workouts. Focus on consuming high-quality protein, plenty of leafy greens, and plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables. Cut out refined sugar, soda, and processed foods. In addition, you may want to consider starting to take electrolytes to prevent dehydration caused from your increased exercise regimen.
7. Learn How To Progress Your Workouts
As you work toward your goal, you'll notice that workouts that challenge you in the short term no longer cause you to break a sweat. While this is a clear sign you're getting more fit, you need to continue to challenge yourself to hit your goal.
Progressive overload is the practice of finding new ways to make an old workout challenging again. Here are a few tips to get started:
- Increase your resistance (if strength training) or your distance (if running, biking, or swimming)
- Add a source of instability, trying single leg lunges, squats, or deadlifts, or adding standing on a bosu ball for strength movements
- Increase the speed of your workouts, decrease rest time between sets, or try to superset different exercises
How Long It Takes To Get in Shape Depends on a Number of Factors
Wondering how long it takes to get into shape? That answer depends on your current fitness level, if you're fighting any injuries, and your own definition of "in shape."
To get in shape, I encourage clients to set a specific goal and monitor their progress. Depending on your exercise routine, your goal could take as little as four weeks and as long as one year to accomplish. To shorten that window, find new ways to make your workouts challenging, prioritize recovery and nutrition, and strike a balance between strength and cardio.
Most of all, I encourage you to follow a well-balanced program designed by a personal trainer, like the Build Bullet-Proof Health program. Combining strength, cardio, recovery, and nutrition, it's the most efficient way to get into shape.
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