The world of exercise has always had some dark and murky corners: the big questions like how long, how often, and what type of exercise are most beneficial have no cut and dried answers.

Exercise is in some ways like food. Yes, we know they are both good for us, and we need to partake in some fashion. But both are often complicated by emotional and psychological needs.

With exercise, it might be a belief that more is always better, and we berate ourselves as lazy if we do less. The “no pain, no gain” group. With food, we know we don’t “need” that chocolate cake, but we also feel we do need its soothing qualities.

Researchers have been looking into how much exercise we need to give us a net positive effect.  They have found that “less may be more,” because exercise in the real world is a combination of physical movement AND psychology.

A study reported in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in February of this year involved 74 sedentary women between the ages of 60 and 74. In controlled exercise activities, one group worked out twice a week, the second group four times a week and the third group six times a week. This went on for four months.

All the women gained endurance and fitness, and remarkably, there were almost no differences in fitness gains among the groups.

By the end of the study, the women who exercised four times a week were burning an additional 225 calories a day besides what they burned exercising, because they felt more energized and physically capable. They were opting for stairs over elevators, and walking for pleasure.

Likewise, the women who exercised two times a week burned almost 100 more calories daily, and also felt more energized.

The women who exercised six times a week, while not feeling fatigued, did feel pressed for time because of their exercise schedule. They tended to opt for time-saving measures like driving instead of walking, or elevators over stairs. These women, by the end of the four-month study, were burning 200 calories a day LESS than when they began the study, despite their exercise routine.

That’s where emotions and psychology enter into the mix.  Working out six times a week is fine, if we consciously monitor our total activity level and don’t start skimping in other areas.

It seemed that the women who exercised four times a week had the best balance between physical exertion and a positive regard for taking those stairs.

(Exerpted from “Why Four Workouts a Week May Be Better Than Six” by Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times, 2/13/2013.)