How long does it take to get in shape?
If I had a dollar for every time a new client asked me that question, I’d have a very large pile of dollar bills! First of all, it’s a very subjective question. There’s a lot of criteria that plays into an approximate answer.
Let’s look at some of the factors that contribute to the timeframe of getting into shape.
Takeaways That Won’t Fail You
- “In shape” has a different meaning to each person. Base your standards on a self-comparison.
- There are several components to fitness to consider: cardiovascular, body composition, strength, balanced strength, functional movement, and aesthetics.
- When looking at the different components of fitness, there’s a different average time period to get in shape.
- Once one is “in shape,” they must maintain the habit and make it a priority to stay in shape.
- Social media has sadly placed too much emphasis on body composition and aesthetics instead of balanced strength and cardiovascular conditioning.
What is “in shape?”
To answer that question, we have to review what the components of fitness are and how they equate to “in shape.” This will be different for everyone. And some applications will not even be relevant to some individuals’ concerns.
We can generally define cardiovascular fitness as:
- A diminished resting heart rate
- An improved cardiac outputCO is the amount of blood pumped by the heart
- Improved VO2VO2 is oxygen uptake
- Improved recovery from an elevated heart rate
I’ve seen the fastest improvements when utilizing interval training with any level of fitness. Even if it’s as simple as pushing hard on an elliptical for 10 seconds followed by 50 seconds of slow. We all have to crawl before we can walk.
So, how long does it take to get in shape with cardiovascular conditioning? With consistent training (approximately 5 days/week), I’ve seen rapid improvements in just a couple of weeks. Just adding basic interval training 3 times a week can eliminate being winded from stairs in 3-4 weeks.
To simplify what it means to get stronger, let’s look at how a muscle is broken down and repaired.
When you strength train, you induce microscopic tearing in the muscle fibers. This is a good thing. When you rest, this tearing heals. When it heals, it heals stronger. As long as you’re always challenging your muscles and tearing them down, you’ll continue to get stronger.
The improvements get smaller over time. And it’s important to point out that in the beginning, some of the strength gains are neurological. This is because our motor neurons become more efficient at firing a muscle fiber.
This improved efficiency is why newbies make quick gains in strength and then it slows down after a few weeks.
Also, I’d like to point out that many individuals strength train intensely enough to satisfy the cardiovascular component of fitness.
So, how long does it take to get in shape with strength? Most of our clients start to feel stronger within the first month of consistently training two-three days a week.
What do I mean by balanced strength? Simply put, all of the muscles surrounding a joint should exert equal tension. For example, let’s say your quadriceps are super strong and your hamstrings are weak. Now the tension on the front of your leg is more than the backside.
This creates unnecessary tension around the knee joint. That’s a super simple example, but it applies to all joints no matter how complex.
Balanced strength is not one of the official components of fitness. But it’s super important for maintaining pain-free joints as we age.
So, how long does it take to get in shape with balanced strength? In my experience with my clients, depending on their history and current fitness, it can take anywhere from six months to several years to balance the muscles around a joint.
By functional movement, I mean you can go through a joint’s full range of motion without inhibition or pain.
This component is something that is mastered by a good physical therapist or strength and conditioning specialist.
Again, is this one of the official “components of fitness?” No, but it’s important for day to day activities. And being able to reach over your head or bend down without inhibition as we age is super important!
So, how long does it take to get in shape with functional movement? This depends on the age of the individual. Individuals under 40 can easily achieve improved functional movement in two to six months. Individuals over 40 take longer (up to a year).
Flexibility is one of the components of fitness for a good reason. A tight muscle eventually wears on a joint it crosses. You may not feel it now, but as you age it becomes apparent if your muscles are not equally flexible.
This also ties in closely with the balanced strength I was discussing earlier.
Being “in shape” means maintaining some degree of flexibility as far as I’m concerned.
So, how long does it take to get in shape with flexibility? This too depends on the age and fitness level of an individual. There’s also a genetic factor that plays a role. You all know someone who is either hypermobile or genetically tight from birth onward. Nonetheless, I’ve seen flexibility improve in less than a month if an individual is stretching daily.
Body composition and aesthetics are probably at the forefront of most people’s mind when thinking “in shape.”
What is body composition? The easiest way to think of it is the ratio of lean tissue to fat. And the only foolproof way to obtain an exact body composition is through cremation. I don’t think any of you are that die-hard…
It can be obtained by an individual well versed and experienced in fat caliper pinching. My only caveat is to make sure you always use the same person when being pinched. This minimizes the risk of error.
If you want to learn more about when we burn the most fat, look into my article How To Lose Fat: When Does Your Body Burn The Most Fat?
What are good parameters to stay within when looking to achieve a healthy body composition?
The answer is subjective, so we’ll give a range. And please keep in mind that different sources report different numbers. One more reason I don’t like comparing one’s fitness to a chart!
- A healthy body fat composition for women is 21-25% fat
- A healthy body fat range for men is 14-17% fat
So, how long does it take to get in shape with body composition? This is the slowest because it requires the most changes. Adding more muscle from strength training and reducing fat from eating clean can take anywhere from 3-12 months. I’ve seen amazing changes in 3 months, but it’s few and far between to find someone willing to make such drastic changes and stick to it. I’m not downplaying the potential, it’s just not as pervasive as big changes in 6-12 months.
If you had asked me thirty years what being in shape meant to most people, I would have said improved aesthetics. But that’s not my answer today. I make this comment selfishly because I tend to work with more of the older population now. So, most people who come to me for help want to feel better and have less pain.
The artificial reality that Instagram presents us has probably created a new wave of people seeing “in shape” as aesthetics and body composition-based. I’d like to see that change.
One can improve their aesthetic simply by smiling more. But that’s not the point. Seriously, just by cutting out sugar, your aesthetics will improve. It will result in clearer skin and less body fat.
So, how long does it take to get in shape aesthetically? This might just be the fastest change. A complete overhaul to a healthier diet can change someone’s aesthetics in 7-10 days. That’s pretty motivating if you ask me!
How do you know if you’re in shape?
There’s no real answer to this question. You’ll just know when you feel better, have a little less fat, and can move up stairs more easily.
If you’re only comparing yourself to yourself, which is the healthiest way, it will be easy to gauge your changes. Comparing yourself to celebrity fitness enthusiasts is usually unrealistic. They live, eat and sleep fitness. Your lifestyle may not support that time obligation.
What “standards” should you hold yourself to?
No doubt, you’ve seen someone with a physique you wish you had at some point in your life. If not, consider yourself lucky. I get a lot of new clients who bring me a picture of a celebrity. “I want to look like them,” they say.
I try to explain that we’re working with what they have, period. We cannot shape ourselves into someone else. We can only improve upon who we are and what we have to work with.
So, with that said, hold yourself to the standards of your best self.
How does it feel to be in shape?
It feels damn good! Multiple flights of stairs quickly, no problem. Heavy groceries, no problem. Long hike in the hills, no issues or pain.
That last statement about no pain carries weight. Generally speaking, when one is in good shape, they experience less pain overall.
Busing did find in one study that improved physical fitness did not equate to higher life satisfaction. This is just one study. And I think this points out the importance of focusing on the health benefits holistically.
In other words, better health eliminates the misery of dealing with many preventable health issues.
So how long does it take to get in shape?
Let’s summarize each component of fitness to give you a better idea of the timeframe for getting into shape.
With consistent training (approximately 5 days/week), I’ve seen rapid improvements in just a couple of weeks.
Most start to feel stronger within the first month of consistently training two-three days a week.
Depending on one’s history and current fitness, it can take anywhere from six months to several years to balance the muscles around a joint.
This depends on the age of the individual. Individuals under 40 can easily achieve improved functional movement in two to six months. Individuals over 40 take longer (up to a year).
Depending on one’s age, flexibility improves in less than a month if an individual is stretching daily.
Adding more muscle from strength training and reducing fat from eating clean can take anywhere from 3-12 months. Less for small changes.
A complete overhaul to a healthier diet can change someone’s aesthetics in 7-10 days.
Combine these factors to see how long does it take to get fit.
Does the work stop after you’re in shape?
Not at all. The only difference is that it’s easier and already habitual. It takes work to stay fit. And that work doesn’t end when you get there. Going backward can happen at a faster rate than getting into shape.
We all know someone (or ourselves) who has gotten healthy and then went backward rapidly. Try to avoid being one of those who contribute to that statistic.
So once you make it a habit, keep that habit a priority for the rest of your life!
References on How Long Does it Take to Get Fit
Busing K, West C. Determining the Relationship Between Physical Fitness, Gender, and Life Satisfaction. SAGE Open. October 2016.
Thomas R. Baechle & Roger W. Earle, Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, Second Edition, Human Kinetics, 2000.