You know how important exercise is to your health. Keeping your body active is essential to prevent and manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and more. And the benefits of exercise to your mental health cannot be overstated.
Cleveland Clinic is a not-for-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Politics
But all too often we approach our fitness goals and plans a bit haphazardly. We know we need to practice, so just… keep going.
But starting an exercise program without a solid plan doesn’t set you up for success.
“Exercise is medicine,” says sports medicine physician Michael Dakak, DO. “And for the drug to be effective, you have to be careful about what you take, when, how much and for how long. The same goes for exercise. You need a plan.
Enter the FITT Principle—a framework to help you (and your health team) create exercise routines tailored to your goals.
What is FITT and how do you get started? Dr. Dakkak explains.
What is the FITT principle?
You can think of the FITT principle as a prescription for exercise. FITT stands for ffrequency, Iintensity, Tname and Type. This means taking into account:
- How often you will exercise (frequency).
- How hard you will push yourself (intensity).
- How much exercise will you do (time).
- What kind of exercise will you be doing (type).
“FITT is a way to create an exercise program that works for you,” says Dr. Dakkak. “If you don’t have a plan, or you don’t have a plan that works well for you, it’s easy to get off track. Having a solid plan is the first step to success.”
Consider this: If you have heart disease, a health care provider may recommend certain medications. But they don’t just say, “They take medicine.” They prescribe a certain medicine. And then they give you instructions on how much to take, when to take it, and how long you should take it.
Similarly, the provider may recommend exercise to strengthen your heart. But, as with medication, you’ll benefit from guidance that’s more specific than just, “Exercise more.”
Following the FITT principles to create a routine can ensure that the exercise you do will work for you. You can take into account how much time you can devote to exercise and what you enjoy doing.
FITT allows you to have a set plan to hold yourself accountable to. And this will ensure that you don’t overdo things and leave yourself vulnerable to injury.
“The FITT principles help you lay everything out in black and white so you know what to do, when to do it, how long and how hard to push yourself,” explains Dr. Dakkak. “Everyone’s goals and experience levels are different, but the great thing about these principles is that they can be used by anyone, whether they’re a beginner, intermediate, or experienced.”
Let’s take a look at each of the elements of FITT and how they work together to create a recipe to fuel your fitness program.
Determining the frequency of your fitness routine is all about solidifying a plan for how often you will exercise.
“The frequency of your exercise depends a lot on how much time you have to devote to exercise, what your goals are, and what your current fitness level is,” explains Dr. Dakkak.
For example, if your workouts depend mostly on lower-intensity activities like walking or swimming, you might consider doing those activities four to five times a week or even every day.
If you intend to engage in more vigorous activities, such as Zumba or HIIT (high-intensity interval training), you may want to consider reducing the frequency to something more than two or three sessions per week.
The intensity of your exercise program is a matter of how much you get your blood pumping. It’s basically how hard your body is working to cope.
“We measure exercise intensity based on heart rate zones,” explains Dr. Dakkak. “Your heart rate zone is a measure of how fast your heart is beating. A higher heart rate during exercise means your heart is working harder.”
Knowing your exact heart rate zone requires a little math and a heart rate monitor. (You can learn how to calculate your heart rate zone here.) But you can also gauge which heart rate zone you’re in by measuring how you feel during exercise. Consider these signals:
- Zone 1: You can easily have a conversation with someone at the speed you are walking.
- Zone 2: You can still hold a light conversation, but you have to strain yourself a bit and may need to stop for a while to catch your breath every now and then.
- Zone 3: You can talk if you need to, but it will take some effort. You can maintain this pace for about 20 to 40 minutes.
- Zone 4: Don’t talk unless you have to and you can’t keep up the pace you’re going for more than about 15 minutes.
- Zone 5: Talk is off. You can continue your efforts here for about five minutes.
During your workouts, your goal should not be to push yourself to your zone 5-sweat-out-of-breath-break point. In fact, that shouldn’t be most people’s goal. Because the benefits of exercise begin well below that threshold.
“For most people, we aim to have their training in zones 2 or 3 for the majority of their exercise program,” advises Dr Dakkak. “It’s not just about sweating, it’s about increasing VO2 max, which improves oxygenation and your cardiopulmonary system. You’ll take advantage of that by starting in zone two.”
What your intensity level should look like again depends on your goals and your other FITT principles.
If you train regularly and for longer stretches, zone 2 may be perfect for you. But if you’re trying to squeeze your exercise into shorter bursts (a la exercise snacks), you’ll want to increase the intensity to reach your goals.
The American College of Cardiology (ACC) recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Or at least 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise. Or some combination of the two.
In addition, the ACC recommends that adults do muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.
What exactly constitutes moderate vs. vigorous exercise comes back to understanding your heart rate zone. Zones 2 and 3 are generally considered moderate exercise. Zones 4 and 5 are considered high intensity.
Depending on your health goals, you can choose to reach these thresholds by taking a 30-minute walk five days a week. This equates to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise.
Or maybe you’ll swim 20-minute laps a day for three days and do two (quite challenging) half-hour spin workouts a week. This would equate to 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise and 60 minutes of vigorous exercise. Good balance.
Or you can pack it all in with quick 15-minute HIIT sessions five times a week for a total of 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.
The trick is to know at least roughly where your heart rate is and maintain or increase that cadence to get full cardio benefits without risking injury.
“When you’re thinking about timing, it’s also important to make sure you have safe recovery periods as well,” emphasizes Dr. Dakkak. “If your plan is to spend your exercise time mostly on high-intensity exercise, that’s fine for some people. But you always want to make sure you take enough time to let your body rest. So you’ll want to stick to shorter durations and watch the frequency.”
The type of exercise you do matters. A lot. It matters to your health goals and your fitness level, of course. But Dr. Dakkak reminds us that it also matters because the type of exercise you choose will make a big difference in your success in sticking to your exercise program.
“It there is to be fun,” he emphasizes. “I think fun is like the hidden ‘F’ in FITT. Because if he doesn’t like you, it will be almost impossible to keep him. If you’re unhappy, you won’t keep doing it.”
When considering the types of exercise to include in your exercise program, consider your goals, what’s affordable and feasible in your life, and what you actually enjoy doing.
Here are some ideas:
Lower intensity cardio
- Elliptical with little or no resistance.
- Walking on a flat surface.
Higher intensity cardio
- Elliptical trainers with more resistance.
- Walking on an incline.
- Running or jogging.
- Spin classes.
- Sports activities, such as pickleball, basketball or tennis.
- Weight lifting.
“There are many activities that involve aerobic activity and strengthen your body,” says Dr. Dakkak. “The best type of exercise for you is what gets you moving and what you’ll do consistently. You have to be consistent with it, have fun with it and do it in a safe way. That’s what we’re looking for.”
And make sure you get a mix of activities whenever possible.
“If you only do one thing, your body will adapt to that one thing,” he adds. “But your whole body needs your attention.”
Tips for FITT Success
Over time, your training program will need some maintenance.
Check how you’re doing with sticking to the plan. Keep a log of your exercise activities so you can be more alert if you’re slipping off track. (And congratulations on a job well done!)
And be prepared to adjust the plan as your body becomes more conditioned. Maybe that walk around the block used to get your heart rate up. But after a few months, you may have to push a little longer to get the same benefit.
“As your health improves, you’ll have to work harder to get your heart rate into higher zones, and that’s okay. It means your plan is working,” says Dr. Dakkak.
If your daily walk no longer puts you in Zone 2, you may need to calibrate one of your other FITT items. Maybe it’s just a matter of time and you walk longer to get that heart rate up. Or you change the type of exercise and turn that walk into a light jog.
However, when you go to change your plan, resist the temptation to make wholesale changes.
“I like to always say increase only one thing at a time—whether that’s frequency, intensity, or time,” advises Dr. Dakkak. “So we’re really going to grow through the program and in our cardiovascular fitness and make sure we’re not pushing our bodies too much, too fast.”
Not sure where to start your FITT journey? Talk to a health care provider, such as a sports medicine doctor. They can help you develop a personalized plan tailored to your goals, your health and, perhaps most importantly, your life.