If you’ve ever finished a workout and wondered if it actually did you any good, you’re not alone. It’s a common perception that a good workout must leave you shaking and sweaty, according to a new survey published in the journal BMC Public Health. Many women reported that physical activity only “counts” if it’s high intensity, performed for a certain length of time, and done at a gym. But it turns out that’s not entirely true.
“Most people still believe older exercise recommendations and haven’t internalized the updated ones permitting less-intense workouts,” explains study author Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, motivation scientist and director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center. And since many people might be deterred by intense workouts, this can keep them from exercising consistently or even starting a program in the first place, she adds.
So if it’s not the intensity of exercise, what actually makes a good workout, and how do you know if you got one? First and foremost, remember that anything is better than nothing at all, Segar says. Then, you can look at how it makes you feel both physically and mentally. Use the list below to get a better idea of how your last session rates. You don’t have to check off every single one of these boxes, but if you can relate to a few of them, then odds are you had a “good” workout.
Physical Signs of a Good Workout
As the women in the survey demonstrated, the first thing most of us use to size up our activity are physical signs. This isn’t a bad thing, and it’s pretty easy to do—but you want to remember that all of this is individualized.
“A ‘good’ workout is really dependent on what your goals are,” says Jill Kanaley, PhD, an exercise physiologist at University of Missouri. “If someone is overweight and finally gets out to do something, that’s a good workout.” But that person’s goals are very different from someone who’s in their 20s and works out regularly. Keeping that perspective, consider these four factors to help you rate your workout.
1. Your progress
Consider if you’re challenging yourself physically. This doesn’t mean adding 20 pounds to your deadlifts or running an extra mile every single workout. Even little steps can help your body improve over time.
Say you normally bench press using 20-pound dumbbells, and today you used 22.5s. That’s a “good” workout. Or, if you typically run three miles and today you walked an extra half mile, that’s a “good” workout. “The extra amount you add doesn’t need to be at a super high intensity,” Kanaley says, and you don’t need to increase your weights or milage every single workout. But when you hit a point when your norm feels easy, that’s when it’s time to strive for more in your workout routine.
2. Your energy level
Although some people love to feel exhausted after a workout, you should actually feel more energized when you’re done, says Jamie Shapiro, PhD, professor of sport and performance psychology at University of Denver. Otherwise, it might mean you’re pushing yourself too hard.
Getting your blood pumping can even stimulate your brain and help you wake up. Something as simple going for a walk can help boost your creativity and get you out of an afternoon slump. If you finish a sweat session and feel like you can take on anything life throws at you, then mark that as a sign of a good workout.