The 1-5% Rule of Fitness: Why You Should Follow It

As a trainer and a coach, it is my job to simplify the concepts in fitness and health and then relay that information to my clients and athletes. 

How often should I work out? 

How much time should I spend in the gym? 

How do I know what to do? 

How much exercise is too much? 

How much should an online coach cost? 

How much more is it to work with a personal trainer? 

To help answer those oft asked questions, here is a simple guideline: The 1-5% Rule of Fitness. 

It contains two primary parts. 

  1. You should spend 1-5% of your weekly time working on your health and fitness. 
  2. You should spend 1-5% of your monthly income on your health and fitness. 

Spend 1-5% of Your Time on Fitness and Health

You should spend 1-5% of your weekly time working on your health and fitness. 

I hope you don’t think that is a lot of time.  With that much of a time investment you can see a huge payoff, in both the short term and the long term.  Imagine being able to kick butt at your work spending only 1-5% of your time there.  What if you only had to sleep 1-5% of your time to feel healthy and good?  Personally I think it is awesome that we can get away with doing so little and still having amazing results.

There are 168 hours in a week, this means you should spend a minimum of 1.68 hours a week exercising, up to 8.4 hours a week.  Whether you divide that up into one or more longer sessions or multiple shorter sessions is up to you, although it is probably ideal to do something physical at least twice a week.  Exercise for less than 90 minutes a week total means you are not following the 1-5% Rule of Fitness.

Spend 1-5% of Your Money on Fitness and Health

You should expect to spend 1-5% of your monthly income on your fitness and health. 

Do you think that is too much?  What did you expect it to be?  The only thing less than 1 is zero.  If you are thinking that our ancestors didn’t have to spend significant money on their fitness, then I would say you are right.  I would also tell you get to rid of your car, your refrigerator, your dishwasher, your laundry machine, and your cell phone.  Do that and you’ll won’t need to spend any money on your fitness routine either.  Our life has become easy; as a result we need to build in physical hardships to ensure our body stays healthy. 

If you make 2k a month that means you should spend $20-100 a month.  What can you get with $20 a month?  Buy a fitness book each month and read it.  After a year you’ll know a lot about fitness.  If you like to lift and you haven’t read Starting Strength, All About Powerlifting, and 5/3/1 you are doing yourself a disservice.  Or go to Planet Fitness.  It is not my favorite gym but it helps some people and I won’t deny that.  $100 a month gets you a nice gym membership.  For a $100/month athletes can join my powerlifting team. 

If you make 5k a month that means you should spend $50-250 a month on your fitness program.  For that amount you can get a good gym membership and an online trainer writing you (hopefully) kick ass programs.  Sign up for a powerlifting competition, go to a CrossFit gym (with a good coach), or join an obstacle course racing team. 

If you make 10k a month that is $100-500 a month you ought to allow for your fitness program.  You can probably get a trainer to train you once a week and write your other workouts for the week for that amount.  You might be surprised at how well that works assuming you actually do the other workouts on your own.  If you are experienced get the best coach you can find, take a mentorship class, or work with a nutritionist.  Learn and expand your horizons.

If you make 40K+ a month that is $400-2000 a month you should spend on your health and fitness.  If you make this much money and you are not perfectly content with your health and fitness, you should work with one-on-one with an experienced personal trainer.  It costs about $1750/month to work with me three times a week.  If you can find a good trainer I promise you, you will enjoy that experience.  Do this for a year and you’ll be amazed at how you feel.  Sure you could spend that money to drive a nice car or you could put in the stock market – but let’s face it.  If you make that much money you are already driving a nice car and you already have money in the market.  A little bit extra in your bank account won’t compare to how much better you feel when you are working out regularly, when you have that regular stress relief, and when you develop a positive personal relationship with your trainer.  And here’s a little secret.  It isn’t the exercises that a trainer selects that makes the session so worthwhile – it is the exercises the trainer doesn’t.  Meaning the real secret is knowing what NOT to do with clients.  It is knowing what will get them hurt, what will tweak their shoulder or their back, or spike their blood pressure.  That is the key, and that is what most people don’t know.  It sucks when you hurt yourself in the gym, but unfortunately, it happens all too often. 

What if I don’t want to spend that much time on fitness?

In your 20’s and 30’s you can probably get away with doing less, although I have full confidence in saying you’ll very likely feel better and enjoy life more if you do exercise regularly.  But after you are 40 or 50 you are likely to start experiencing the physical and health effects of lack exercise.  Examples of the physical effects are that you’ll likely start to limit your activities because of your fitness level – for example you’ll avoid the mall because you have to walk around; you’ll skip that cruise because you’re worried about having to go up and down too many steps; you won’t play sports with friends because you know you can’t keep up.  Once you reach this stage it tends to only get worse – the less activity you do, the worse your body gets, which makes you want to do even less.  A negative snowball effect is created – unless you actively work to correct it.  The negative health effects are likely to include joint issues; sleep issues; going on meds for blood pressure and cholesterol; diabetes; heart attack; and strokes.  The last three will have a major impact on your life, perhaps for the rest of your life. 

My goal is not to scare you but simply to motivate you and to present you the facts and let you make your decision.  It is all about stacking the odds.  Certainly some people never exercise and still live a long life.  Others exercise religiously and die young.  But those are the exceptions.  It is worth noting I don’t know anyone that has exercised ‘normally and regularly’ (about 3 hours a week consistently) and looking back regrets how that time was spent.  I remember my Uncle asking my dad how much exercised each week.  When my dad responded by saying it was about 6 hours of time each week, my Uncle scoffed and said he didn’t have that much time to spend on fitness.  He died twenty years ago from a heart attack at age 60, my dad is 82 and still spending 6 hours each week on exercise. 


What if I do more than that?

You can of course exercise more than 5% of your time, which means you are exercising for 9+ hours a week.  There are pros and cons of doing this.  The big positive is that you’ll likely see results faster, especially in the short term (first year or so), and if you are very focused on sports performance and you hope to reach a high level in your sport this may be necessary to do this at least for a while.  Almost every professional athlete would spend at least 10 hours a week exercising and physical training for their sport.  However, there are some significant negatives that you should be aware of. 

Exercise is good, but more is not necessarily better.  I am highly skeptical that exercising 10 hours a week is better for your health than exercising 5 hours a week (assuming those 5 hours a week are well spent).  Indeed it is very likely that for your joints and connective tissue a high level of exercise is likely worse than a moderate level of exercise (although both are better than doing nothing), and if you do significantly damage your joints that can have a long term negative effect on your health and fitness.  Once you start to “specialize” in fitness by spending a large amount of time on it, often one area excels while another may suffer (for example in powerlifting strength may soar but flexibility and mobility may decrease).  You only have so much time, so now those extra 5-10 hours you are exercising above your 5% goal is time you could have spent doing something else.  For example 10 hours a week of exercise might be great, but what if you focused on the most important 5 hours a week of exercise and then you added in more time for reading, more quality time for family, or dedicated time to learn a new hobby?  What is a better use of time now?  You can do more, but ask yourself why and make sure it is a good answer.

What if I want to spend less money on fitness?

It is possible to spend almost no money on fitness and still get really healthy and fit?  Sure, it’s possible.  It’s possible I’ll pick up an astrophysics degree in my spare time just by studying youtube clips on my own, but it isn’t very likely.  If you find yourself rebelling against the idea that you need to spend money on your fitness each month, I would borrow Dr. Phil’s words and ask: How is that working out for you?  If your strength, cardio, endurance, bodyfat and flexibility are all right where you want to them to be, then I would say “great, keep on doing what you are doing.”  But if things aren’t great, if your fitness isn’t where you want it to be, then take a moment and reexamine things.  Don’t be the person that simply seeks to justify faulty behavioral patterns, instead seek out a positive outcome.  Sometimes that means changing our mindset.  To me the idea that you would expect to spend no money on your fitness program and still get good results is an unrealistic expectation. 

What if I want to spend more?

You can spend more – and those of us employed in the fitness community say thank you for doing so – but my fear is it may not be very sustainable.  I’ve never had someone making less than 50k a year retain me as their trainer long term simply because the monthly fee is too expensive, it takes up too much of their income.  Most people can’t and don’t want to spend 25% of their monthly income on their fitness routine and I would not expect someone to do that.  As a short term expenditure it might be fine – for example hiring a good trainer for 2 months to show you how to perform all of the major exercises in a gym or buying that sweet mountain bike or cool power rack you’ve had your eye on, just make sure that money spent now pays off in the future. 

If you want to get healthy and fit, and more importantly if you want to stay healthy and fit, follow the 1-5% Rule of Fitness.  I am betting that if you do, you’ll look back and say that was time and money well spent. 

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