For the spring semester of my junior year, I packed up my yoga mat, P90X DVDs (and as many clothes as I could feasibly squeeze into one suitcase), and flew to Australia. Six months later, I packed it all back up and headed home. But I took something else home with me, too. Ten pounds of pudge. Though I ran in the morning with roommates, swam as much as humanly possible, and regularly practiced sunset yoga on a cliff overlooking the beach (jealous much?), I still managed to increase my pant size in a matter of a few months thanks to lots of alcohol and late-night snacking. My plan to shed the weight once back on home turf: Two-a-day workouts. But is working out twice a day safe? We talked to experts to find out if being a double gym rat is a total no-no.
It Takes Two (Baby)—Why It Matters
My goal was to lose weight, but that’s not every double exerciser’s motive. There’s a range of reasons why people choose to visit the gym more than once in 24 hours, such as building muscle or training for an especially tough race. And while research shows regular exercise is essential for leading a healthy life (from weight maintenance to keeping the heart healthy), for some people, one workout a day doesn’t seem to fit the bill Daily exercise lowers blood pressure and reduces visceral adipose tissue areas in overweight Japanese men. Miyatake, N., Takahashi, K., Wada, J. et al. Okayama Southern Institute of Health, Okayama, Japan. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 2003 Dec;62(3):149-57..
Plenty of studies have compared the health effects of working out once a day—say, for an hour—versus splitting up the workout into two 30-minute sessions or even shorter bouts of exercise. When it comes to adiposity (a fancy term for body fat), blood lipids, and psychological wellbeing, it’s unclear whether working out once, twice, or three times (a lady) really makes a difference Accumulated versus continuous exercise for health benefit: a review of empirical studies. Murphy, M.H., Blair, S.N., Murtagh, E.M. Sport and Exercise Sciences Research Institute, University of Ullster, Newtownabbey, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Sports Medicine, 2009;39(1):29-43.. The reality is that our bodies are generally more responsive to the intensity of exercise rather than just how long we’re pounding the pavement or swinging a kettlebell.
But what if working out twice a day means working out more? Current guidelines suggest adults participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week (like walking or swimming) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week (like running or high impact aerobics).
The Lesser of Two Evils?—The Answer/Debate
Before we go reprimanding the ardent gym-goer, it’s important to recognize that working out two or three times a day doesn’t always mean it’s super sweat inducing. If a second workout involving lots of stretching and light calisthenics doesn’t raise your heart rate the same way a long run would, then two-a-days may not be much to worry about.
It all comes down to the intensity and intention of workouts, and ultimately it’s different for everyone. “Two-a-day workouts can be especially useful, and if used wisely, might lead to safer more effective training,” says Greatist Expert John Mandrola. Plus, we can’t forget that elite athletes often workout two or more times a day when training for an event.
“A highly conditioned world class athlete would be able to safely hand multiple training sessions in one day,” says Greatist Expert Jason Edmonds. “But a middle-aged person of average athletic ability with a full time job and family probably wouldn’t want to plan a regimen that involved multiple daily sessions at the gym doing heavy strength training.”
For someone just trying to stay active and reap the benefits of exercise, Edmonds (a biologist and avid Olympic-style weightlifter) says working out twice a day isn’t necessary. However, it is okay for most of us if it’s done right.
How to Two-a-Day the Right Way
1. Find Balance
If planning to exercise more than once a day, avoid overtraining by balancing workouts between high intensity and lower intensity. Ramp up intensity, duration, and frequency carefully since small steps will help prevent injury and allow the body to recover Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription. Kraemer, Q.J., Ratamess, N.A. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 2004 Apr;36(4):674-88.. Most of us should probably avoid two consecutive vigorous or long workouts in the same day, such as running a ten-miler then hitting up a cycling class, to avoid what’s known as overtraining syndrome (though it all depends on individual fitness level and experience) A practical approach to the overtraining syndrome. Pearce, P.Z. The Rockwood Clinic, Spokane, WA. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2002 Jun;1(3):179-83..
2. Space It Out
Allow adequate time between single workouts (experts suggest four to six hours). There’s no exact rule of thumb, though some trainers advocate two days between workouts involving the same muscle group. If performance starts to decrease from workout to workout, it’s probably a good idea to take a few more rest days The effects of exercise-induced muscle damage on cycling time-trial performance. Burt, D.G., Twist, C. Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Chester, Chester, United Kingdom. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011 Aug;26(8):2185-92..
3. Fuel Up
Maximize exercise sessions with pre- and post- workout snacks. Check out our super-detailed guide to workout nutrition to make sure you’re capitalizing on that last gym session. And don’t forget to hydrate! A glass (or more) of water is just as important as that beloved protein shake. In fact exercising when the water tank is low can cause greater damage to muscles and make it harder for them to repair Dehydration and Symptoms of Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness in Hyperthermic Males. Cleary, M.A., Sweeney, L.A., Sitler, M.R. Journal of Athlete Training, 2005 Oct-Dec; 40(4): 288-297..
4. Sleep Like a Pro
Studies suggest too little and poor quality sleep can make it harder for us to recover and perform during future workouts Sleep, recovery, and performance: the new frontier in high-performance athletics. Samuels, C., Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Neurologic Clinics, 2008 Feb;26(1):169-80. Exercise capacity in patients with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Przybylowski, T., Bielicki, P., Hildebrand, K., et al. Department of Pneumology and Allergology, Warsaw Medical University, Warsaw, Poland. Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 2007 Nov;58.. (Check out these super easy ways to sleep better tonight!)
5. Prioritize Recovery
Treat yourself to a little self-myofascial release with one of these recovery tools. And take a day off! If you’ve put in a ton of hours during the week lifting weights, and killin’ it in zumba class, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break. A day off doesn’t mean you’ve got to post up on the couch all day, but a walk with the dog or some light stretching will help the body prep for upcoming workouts. It’s all about listening to your body.
There are advantages to working out multiple times a day. Morning people may exert more effort right after waking up, while night owls may prefer to save a tough workout for later in the day. Thirty to 45 minutes twice daily still works out to only 60-90 minutes per day, which allows for more flexibility for people with busy schedules. And for beginners, breaking up exercise into smaller workouts can be less daunting. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how many times we workout, but the way we do it—which body parts we train each time, the intensity of a cardio session, and how our bodies respond—certainly does. If you work out twice a day, more power to ya! But make sure to play it safe and watch out for signs of overtraining.
Originally published July 2013. Updated November 2013.