How short can a ‘short workout’ really be?

April 4, 2022 – Some people thrive on long runs and sweaty Peloton classes, but a much larger group of people lack the time, motivation or ability for long workouts. Take, for example, people with chronic health problems, limited mobility, previous poor fitness experiences or hopelessly overscheduled people.

That doesn’t mean they should forgo the physical and psychological benefits of exercise. In recent years, headlines have praised research into the benefits of a few minutes of exercise. Not to mention the cottage fitness industry that has surged in response by promising physical transformations in X minutes a day (or less!).

What is true? What’s too good to be true? Can bursts of activity of just 10 minutes or less really help improve your health and fitness? Even when US government guidelines recommend 2½ to 5 hours of moderate exercise per week?

The research says yes. While you should never expect a total body transformation, workouts of even 10 minutes or less can really improve your health, mental well-being and fitness – if you approach them right.

Why short movements can help

Since at least 2005, researchers have been trying to determine how short you can make your training sessions and still benefit from them, says Edward F. Coyle, PhD, a professor and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas.

Part of the equation is intensity. His studies show 10-minute workouts in which people cycle as hard as they can for 4 seconds, then rest for 15 to 30 seconds, improve fitness in young and older adults (and build muscle in the latter, too). Other studies have found that shorter “training snacks” — climbing three flights of stairs three times, with 1 to 4 hours in between — improved fitness over 6 weeks.

By increasing the intensity, Coyle says, these interval sessions temporarily deprive your muscles of both fuel and the oxygen they need to make more fuel, as do longer workouts. In response, your blood volume increases, your heart pumps more with each beat, and your muscle cells develop more mitochondria (tiny energy-producing factories).

That doesn’t mean that less intense physical activity doesn’t help either. It is. In fact, there are several ways you can approach shorter exercise sessions.

‘accumulate’ a healthier lifestyle by exercising throughout the day

To reap the many benefits of physical activity — from lower blood pressure to better sleep to longer life — health experts recommend doing at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity weekly. Moderate means your heart is beating faster, but you can still talk.

That is an average of 20 minutes per day. But if you’ve been inactive or have physical or logistical limits, a full 20 minutes can seem daunting.

Fortunately, the most recent update to the US government’s physical activity guidelines for Americans specifically states that you don’t have to log those minutes all at once. Any amount of movement “counts” toward the total.

Four minutes here, 8 minutes there, another 5 minutes later… it all adds up.

Depending on what you do for the rest of your hours, small, frequent movements can actually be better for your health than one brisk workout.

“Being very sedentary all day and doing just 30 minutes of exercise once a day isn’t very healthy for you,” says Anthony Wall, a certified personal trainer and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Emphasis on very sedentary, meaning sitting for long periods of time. This has health risks, including heart disease and diabetes. While a single workout session is better than nothing, it can’t undo the damage done by all that sitting.

Remember: our bodies are made to move. It’s okay to work gradually up to 150 minutes. Start where you are, perhaps with a 5-minute walk around the block or easy stretches or exercises on the nearest piece of carpet. Be consistent and then add – it will feel easier as your mind and body adjust.

“Data shows that the more you exercise, the more motivated you are to exercise,” says Julia Basso, PhD, an assistant professor and director of the Embodied Brain Laboratory at Virginia Tech University. If you crave exercise, it’s easier to sneak it in. Eventually, all those minutes will add up to 150 a week – or more.

Improve your mood and thinking as well as your health

Short sessions of physical activity also boost brain function, says Basso, a neuroscientist and dancer. Moving your body increases blood flow to the brain and changes the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. It also stimulates the release of growth factors that, over time, aid in the germination of new brain cells.

And exercise brings benefits almost immediately. In a recent Japanese study, running for 10 minutes improved people’s mood and reaction time on a color-word-matching test. Brain imaging showed more activity in prefrontal cortex areas that control things like attention, planning and working memory.

So if you’re feeling down, stressed, or stuck with a difficult problem at work, try taking a 10-minute break for moderate exercise. In this case, don’t go all out — tougher workouts will still benefit your brain over time, but the immediate stress response can temporarily cloud your thinking, Basso says.

Instead, take it to the next level by adding another brain-boosting element, such as social connection or rhythmic music. For example, take a walk with a friend or start a playlist and dance.

Get fit through short, hard bursts

Government training guidelines recognize that the harder you work, the faster you reap the rewards. Choosing more vigorous activities — where you breathe so hard you can barely gasp for a few words — halves the minimum requirement to 75 minutes per week.

Plus, intensity provides additional fitness gains, Wall says. This includes getting better at sport-specific skills and building anaerobic endurance, or the ability to work harder for extended periods of time.

But the short, hard approach has its challenges. It is often difficult to replicate in the real world what happened in a lab. (Coyle’s cycling experiments, for example, use specialized bicycles.) Warming up first can add time; people in the stairclimbing study started with 10 jumping jacks, 10 air squats, and five lunges on each leg.

Finally, pushing hard is uncomfortable. Doing it daily puts you at risk for overtraining or injury, Wall says. Even Coyle himself alternates 4 seconds of bike training with 45 minutes of regular rides 3 days a week, when he can watch Netflix.

Longer sessions provide greater improvements in health markers like blood pressure and resting heart rate, Wall says. And while any move is better than none, mixing everything — from the exercise you’re doing to how long and intense it is — probably provides the greatest abundance of benefits.

Think of these physical activity ideas as “ingredients,” Wall says. “We all eat vegetables, but some of us like bell peppers more than carrots and tomatoes. We all need our five fruits and vegetables a day – but however we mix it up, there’s a lot of variety. Exercise works the same way. ”

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