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This post aims to give evidence-based recommendations on physical exercise for EAs.

Why exercise?

Exercise can enhance productivity (and thus impact) of EAs in two ways:

  • Acute enhancement of cognitive performance.
  • Medium and long-term improvement of physical and mental health.

How to exercise?

  • Moderate and/or vigorous intensity “cardio” exercise for at least 20 minutes per day on at least 3 days per week is recommended.
  • Additionally, resistance exercise (~ 3 x 10 repetitions with high intensity) for each of the major muscle groups should be performed on 2-3 days per week (can be combined with cardio).
  • Implementation example: Daily active commuting (fast walking or riding bicycle for a total of ~ 30 min per day) and a twice-per-week visit to the gym (resistance exercise with initial supervision by a fitness-professional).


I am an exercise scientist. My research focuses on the systemic physiology in endurance athletes and I am the exercise physiologist of the Swiss Olympic team. In this role, I have gotten in touch with spectacularly many and wildly different answers to the question “what is the best training strategy for maximal performance benefit?” Even in the elite sports domain (or maybe especially in the elite sports domain) there is much quackery going on when it comes to prescribing exercise. It is, for example, far more common for athletes and coaches to simply copy the fancy-looking training regimen from successful athletes’ blogs than to look at the scientific evidence for these interventions. The actual evidence on training for high performance, regrettably, is much less fancy (and also much less specific) than the average blog post may suggest…

I think the same might apply for the facet of exercise that is interesting for EAs - namely exercise to enhance productivity and thus impact. Although there has been some discussion on exercise in the community (e.g. here), I think it is fair to say that sports and exercise are not the most thoroughly researched topics within EA.

Let me, therefore, lay out in this post what I think are uncontroversial and evidence-based pieces of advice about the effect of exercise on health and productivity. Or: Why and how should EAs exercise?

Why exercise?

The scientific evidence is indisputable: Engaging in regular physical exercise and reducing sedentary behavior is vital for the health of adults. The most important findings associated with exercise include:

  • Decreased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes
  • Decreased risk of colon and breast cancer
  • Prevention of and improvement in depressive disorders and anxiety
  • Improvements in body composition and strength
  • Enhancement in feeling of “energy” and quality of life as well as decreased fatigue.
  • Enhancement of cognitive function as well as lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia

In fact, it is hard to think of a health-related variable that is not affected by physical exercise in a positive way. Exercise really is medicine…

I think this is also relevant to us EAs. More specifically, I see two ways in which exercise can help us enhance our productivity and thereby our impact:

  • First, immediately after and also during light- to moderate-intensity exercise, cognitive performance is (slightly) enhanced. Consequently, one can expect better cognitive functioning not only after an exercise session or after an active break but also during light exercise as for example a stroll.
  • Second, and more importantly, medium- and long-term mental and physical health very clearly benefit from physical exercise. This means, one can expect better long-term productivity and impact when exercising regularly because one will simply be healthier.

So the case seems clear: We need to exercise regularly. But how much is enough to get the health benefits? And how is exercise done right?

How to exercise?


The available evidence supports a dose–response relationship between physical activity and health variables, such that greater benefits are associated with higher volumes of exercise. Even if the exact shape of the dose–response curve is not clear, it is reasonable to say ‘‘some exercise is good; more is better.’’ However, as the dose-response curve most likely reaches a plateau or even reverses at some point, we want to know the exercise dose that is high enough to get most of the health benefits and low enough not to be risky or very inefficient.

So here they are, the recommendations on physical exercise for health:

Cardio exercise (i.e. cardiorespiratory or “aerobic” exercise):


  • Regular, purposeful (i.e. beyond activities of daily living) exercise that involves major muscle groups and is continuous and rhythmic in nature is recommended.
    This can involve running, cycling, swimming, rowing, ball sports (e.g. football or tennis), group fitness (e.g. step aerobics), etc. and should be chosen according to personal taste.


  • Moderate and/or vigorous intensity [1] is recommended.
  • Lower intensities may be beneficial in deconditioned persons.
  • High intensity exercise (interval or circuit training, e.g. like this) can yield larger physiological adaptations per training session. However, high intensity exercise is mentally more demanding and may compromise exercise adherence in the long-term.

Volume (= Time)

  • 30 – 60 min per day of moderate exercise, or 20 – 60 min per day of vigorous exercise (or a combination of both) are recommended.
  • Smaller volumes can also be beneficial, especially in previously sedentary persons.


  • ≥ 5 days per week of moderate exercise, or
  • ≥ 3 days per week of vigorous exercise, or
  • a combination of moderate and vigorous exercise on ≥ 3–5 days per week


  • Exercise may be performed in one (continuous) session per day or in multiple sessions of ≥ 10 min to accumulate the desired duration and volume of exercise per day.
  • Exercise bouts of < 10 min may yield favorable adaptations in very deconditioned individuals.


  • A gradual increase (i.e. over weeks to months) of exercise dose by adjusting exercise duration, frequency, and/or intensity is reasonable until the desired exercise goal is attained.
  • This approach may enhance adherence and reduce risks of musculoskeletal injury and adverse coronary heart disease events.

Resistance exercise:


  • Resistance exercises involving each major muscle group (i.e. chest, shoulders, back, hips/glutes, legs, trunk and arms) are recommended.
  • A variety of exercise equipment and/or body weight can be used to perform these exercises. For example: Fixed resistance machines, free weights or resistance (rubber) bands.


  • 60%–70% of the 1RM (i.e. “one repetition maximum” [2]) (moderate to hard) for novice to intermediate exercisers.
  • ≥ 80% of the 1RM (hard to very hard) for experienced strength trainers.
  • 40%–50% of the 1RM (very light to light) for older and sedentary persons.

Volume (= Repetitions / Sets)

  • 8–12 repetitions are recommended to improve strength and power.
  • 10–15 repetitions are effective in improving strength in persons starting exercise.
  • Two to four sets (i.e. cycles of repetitions) are recommended to improve strength and power.
  • A single set of resistance exercise can be effective especially among older and novice exercisers.


  • Each major muscle group should be trained on 2–3 days per week.


  • Rest intervals of 2–3 min between each set of repetitions are effective.
  • A rest of ≥ 48 h between sessions for any single muscle group is recommended.


  • A gradual progression (i.e. over weeks to months) of greater resistance, and/or more repetitions per set, and/or increasing frequency is recommended.

Further remarks and caveats

  • Be aware that there is considerable variability in individual responses to a standard dose of exercise. However, it is still reasonable to take the recommendations given above as a starting point and, if necessary, adapt the exercise to one’s own preferences and needs.
  • Exercise is important for health – but it’s not the whole picture. Adequate nutrition and sleep are also important as well as professional medical attention where needed.
  • There seem to be relevant sex differences in some responses to exercise. The recommendations presented above, however, should be appropriate for men and women.
  • Warm-up, cool down, flexibility exercise, and gradual progression of exercise volume and intensity may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease events and musculoskeletal injury during exercise.
  • Supervision by an experienced health and fitness professional can reduce risk and enhance exercise adherence.
  • Moderate-intensity (instead of high intensity) exercise that is enjoyable can enhance the affective responses to exercise and may improve adherence.

Two practical examples of a sufficient exercise routine

  • Marie commutes daily by bicycle to the chemistry lab where she works. One way takes her ~15 minutes. On top of that, on Tuesday evening and on Saturday morning, Marie visits the “Bodypump” group fitness class in her local gym with her friend Rosalind.
  • Albert goes to the gym twice a week. There he does a 10 min warm-up on the rowing machine followed by a strength training session (to which he was initially introduced by a fitness professional) that involves all major muscle groups (3 hard sets of 8 reps each). He walks to the gym, which takes him 20 min per way. Additionally, he jogs for 60 min with his friend Charles every Sunday.


I have presented arguments as to the necessity of physical exercise for health and productivity. Moreover, I have listed the evidence-based recommendations on exercise for health and I have provided specific examples.

I am confident that EAs can rely on these recommendations and do not themselves have to screen the jungle of often not well-founded advice on the internet.

Please let me know what you think in the comments - and where you might need more advice.

With all this in mind: Have a good workout!


[1] The cardio intensity recommendations that I use are expressed as subjective ratings of perceived exertion: On a scale of 0 to 10 (where sitting is 0 and the highest level of effort possible is 10) low-intensity is below 5, moderate-intensity activity is a 5 or 6, vigorous-intensity is a 7 or 8 and high-intensity is above 8.

[2] Intensities for resistance exercise are expressed as percent of the “1RM” (one repetition maximum) – the maximum weight a person can lift in one single repetition of the respective movement.


The arguments and recommendations presented are based on these articles:

  • Chang, Y. K., Labban, J. D., Gapin, J. I., & Etnier, J. L. (2012). The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: a meta-analysis. Brain research, 1453, 87-101.
  • Garber, C. E., Blissmer, B., Deschenes, M. R., Franklin, B. A., Lamonte, M. J., Lee, I. M., ... & Swain, D. P. (2011). Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise.
  • Klika, B., & Jordan, C. (2013). High-intensity circuit training using body weight: Maximum results with minimal investment. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 17(3), 8-13.
  • Piercy, K. L., Troiano, R. P., Ballard, R. M., Carlson, S. A., Fulton, J. E., Galuska, D. A., ... & Olson, R. D. (2018). The physical activity guidelines for Americans. Jama, 320(19), 2020-2028.
  • Sjøgaard, G., Christensen, J. R., Justesen, J. B., Murray, M., Dalager, T., Fredslund, G. H., & Søgaard, K. (2016). Exercise is more than medicine: The working age population's well-being and productivity. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 5(2), 159-165.
  • World Health Organization. (2010). Global recommendations on physical activity for health. World Health Organization.





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This is very good, but I think busy (or unmotivated) EAs without much exercise experience would benefit from even more specific recommendations, especially for resistance exercises (i.e. strength training).

I found the Start Bodyweight program useful when beginning resistance training at home with no equipment other than a pull-up bar. An EA recommended the book Overcoming Gravity for more detailed information on bodyweight exercises.

I now I prefer to use the gym. At a glance, the following (which I just found with a quick Google search) seem like sensible gym-based* options for beginners, but maybe you have better ideas.


https://stronglifts.com/5x5/ [I'd add some core exercises to this, like situps and planks]


When I'm too busy to do the full range of strength and cardio (or when I'm travelling), I sometimes do moderate/high-intensity interval classes at home using YouTube videos. The Body Coach is pretty good - he has a videos with a range of difficulty (beginner to advanced), duration (10 min+), and muscle focus (legs, upper body, abs, full-body, etc). There are also videos meeting specific needs, e.g. low-impact routines so you don't disturb your neighbours or hurt your knees, and ones designed for small spaces. This kind of thing is perhaps the most efficient form of exercise: you can do it anywhere, it doesn't require any equipment, it's free, it covers both cardio and strength, and it doesn't take much time.

When travelling, I also take a resistance band. If you choose the weight carefully, a single band (which folds up to the size of a cigarette packet) can arguably substitute for any dumbbell that you'd use in the gym, and some of the machines as well. (The main thing you're lacking is the ability to do deadlifts, but there are ways around that too.)

I've heard some EAs recommend GymPass, especially if you travel a lot and don't like to exercise alone.

Feel free to correct me on any of this – I don't have any relevant expertise.

*They could obviously be done at home if you buy the equipment. The last one just needs dumbbells or resistance bands, which are pretty cheap.

Thanks for your input Derek. I think you are right: The recommendations in my post are sometimes a bit unspecific. This is because I wanted to present a generic overview of the existing evidence – one that gives the necessary knowledge-basics but can (and must) be used according to personal taste. However, your links and hints are definitely valuable and I encourage everybody to check them out!

I can also vouch for the Stronglifts 5x5 programme.

Training with a team and focusing on improvement (e.g. weight lifted, running time for a given distance, rock climbing grade), where improved health and well-being is the secondary benefit, has helped with my motivation a lot.

I just want to add that if the above gym programs seem a bit too intense or time-consuming, I recommend this beginner gym workout routine. I personally do a similar program at home with some substitutions. E.g. pushups instead of bench press.

I'd add some core exercises to this, like situps and planks

I just want to note that multiple sources I trust don't recommend situps in particular. E.g. this

This is great advice, but also I suspect many people will read it and go "yep, sounds like a thing I should do" and then not exercise, taking the outside view that EAs are not too different from most affluent people who continually choose not to exercise despite it being readily available.

So my advice is to forget about all of this at first and just do something physical and fun. What is fun differs between people. I didn't make a habit of exercising until I lived somewhere where I could do a fun physical activity (indoor rock climbing) whenever I liked. Some people really like running or riding a bike, others like rowing, others like team sports (baseball, basketball, gridiron football, football/soccer, cricket, rugby, etc.), others like "solo" or 1-on-1 sports (tennis, racquetball, squash, golf, etc.), and some people really get into dance or acrobatics or yoga or something else. The point is to first find a physical activity that is fun.

Then let exercise come after. In order to be good at a physical activity, you will be better if you are in good general shape, so good endurance and good strength. This will make exercise instrumentally useful to having more fun, so you'll want to do it because you like having fun, right?

This might not work for everyone (maybe you can't find a physical activity you think is fun after trying lots), but it was a powerful change in mindset for me that got me to go from basically never exercising to spending ~4/hours a week at the gym climbing and training to climb.

The fun bucket is a good one, and I think another good bucket for many EAs is the multitasking bucket, e.g. treadmill desk, stationary bicycle (desk or video gaming), resistance exercising while on the phone, etc.


Running while listening to podcasts/audiobooks is so great.

fwiw I've found martial arts to be easier to stick with than the other exercise types I've tried, because they're very fun / I actually look forward to upcoming sessions.

Thanks for your comment, Gordon. You are certainly right when you say that it is very important to find an exercise program that fits your taste. This is also what the evidence suggests: Exercise that is enjoyable can enhance the affective responses to exercise and may improve adherence. Also, it’s definitely better to do something – even if it’s under the recommended exercise dose – rather than nothing at all.

However, I think that EAs should nontheless aim for the recommended amount of exercise! Because thinking that "every little bit counts" could make one not even try the optimum (I'm unsure about thath, though). I am convinced that it is possible (albeit difficult) to change one's habits regarding exercise…


Thanks very much for writing this! I'm glad to see more advice of this kind for the EA community.

I recently came across some advice from John Ratey which I haven't been able to verify despite some effort. Quoting from his book Spark:

This extends what we know from the neurogenesis research: that aerobic exercise and complex activity have different beneficial effects on the brain...The evidence isn’t perfect, but really, your regimen has to include skill acquisition and aerobic exercisechoose a sport that simultaneously taxes the cardiovascular system and the brain — tennis is a good example — or do a ten-minute aerobic warm-up before something nonaerobic and skill-based, such as rock climbing or balance drills. While aerobic exercise elevates neurotransmitters, creates new blood vessels that pipe in growth factors, and spawns new cells, complex activities put all that material to use by strengthening and expanding networks.

Is it correct that skill acquisition is an important component of an exercise regimen? I thought this was a weird thing for him to assert given that he later says that there is little “research into the effect of rhythm, balance, and skill-based activites on the brain.” It also seems like there is an inherent tradeoff between complex movement and exercise intensity: you can't play tennis as intensely as you can do intervals when swimming/running/cycling.

Question: Imagine I go to the gym for whole-body strength training workout Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One week I'm busy on Monday and Tuesday. Is it useful to go Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday? Or is leaving that rest day really important?

I think it would certainly also be useful to go Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. The importance of the restday-position is secondary to the workout-frequency. Hope that helps.

I've gotten a lot (physically & psychologically) from training Muay Thai.

I'll probably switch over entirely to Brazilian jiu-jitsu within a few years as it's a bit easier on the body (no striking) & can be practiced until late middle age.

Thank you for the information, examples, and progression suggestions. And also for the reference links!

I'm curious what your stance is on 1 set to failure type resistance training protocols? I find that one of my issues when I restart strength training is that I end up sacrificing form in an attempt to minimize the time impact of the new activity. The slower training method tends to help me remain mindful (thus reducing injury incidents and helping with adherence). That said, if there are serious concerns (or if it's just generally less effective), I'd want to know that, too!

Thanks for the question Kim. There really often is a tradeoff between form (i.e. technique) and intensity of the exercise. And you are right: When you sacrifice the form, then the injury risk is higher. Besides the fact that it takes longer, I don't see any great disadvantage of “slower training”, as you say. But if the time you spend on the exercises is a big factor for you, I suggest that you try high intensity using “easy” movements (so that the form is not a factor at all). Maybe this example can help?

Thanks for this! Very useful.

One tiny nitpick:

Marie commutes daily by bicycle to the chemistry lab where she works.

Sorry for taking things a little too literal here, but most people (that I know of) work 5 days a week, have 2-6 weeks off per year, and call in sick something like 5-15 days per year, plus there may be some nationwide holidays on top. That leaves us with a range of around 210 - 245 actual commuting days or 57-67% of all days of the year. There are also likely days where rain/snow/wind cause Marie to get to work some other way, so effectively, even somebody who pretty much always takes the bike to work, will still end up at something like 50% of all days, but would probably tend to describe it as "everyday".

I'm not so much intending to criticize the example here, just point to the fact that such simplification makes it rather easy to delude oneself. I thought of myself as someone who takes the bike to work "almost always", yet when I actually tracked it, only got to around 100 days per year which was somewhat surprising.

Maybe the recommendations already take this into account however, and exceptions (even a lot of them, as naturally tend to happen) are tolerable as long as "the typical week" goes according to plan?

This is a very thoughtful point, Markus. And frankly, my example did not take this into account… I guess that it actually can help to track one’s exercise habits (as you did) and – in case these don’t meet the recommendations – adapt the strategy. For example: If you observe that on average you take the bicycle only on four out of five workdays, then plan one additional session on the weekend.

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