How short can a ‘short workout’ really be?

Apr 4, 2022 – Some people thrive on hour-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, those with chronic health conditions, limited mobility, previous poor fitness experiences, or the hopelessly overworked.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up the physical and psychological benefits of exercise. In recent years, headlines have touted research on the benefits of a few minutes of physical activity. Not to mention the craft fitness industry that has sprung up in response promising physique transformations in X minutes a day (or less!).

What’s the true? What is too good to be true? Can activity bursts 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?

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 bursts of movement can help

Since at least 2005, researchers have been trying to determine how brief your exercise sessions can be and still benefit, says Edward F. Coyle, PhD, 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 pedal as hard as they can for 4 seconds, then rest for 15-30 seconds, improve fitness in young and older adults (and in the latter, build muscle mass, too). . Other studies have shown that shorter “exercise snacks” (walking up three flights of stairs three times, 1 to 4 hours apart) improve fitness for 6 weeks.

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

That doesn’t mean that less intense physical activity isn’t helpful either. This. In fact, there are several ways to approach shorter movement sessions.

‘Build up’ a healthier lifestyle by moving throughout the day

To reap the many benefits of physical activity, from lower blood pressure to better sleep and a longer life, health experts recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity. Moderate means your heart beats faster, but you can still talk.

That makes an average of 20 minutes a day. But if you’ve been inactive or have physical or logistical limitations, a full 20 minutes can seem overwhelming.

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

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

In fact, depending on what you do with the rest of your hours, small, frequent bouts of movement may be better for your health than a solid workout.

“Being very sedentary all day and only getting 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, which means sitting for long periods of time. This has health risks, including heart disease and diabetes. While a single training session is better than nothing, it may not reverse the damage caused by sitting.

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

“The data shows that the more you exercise, the more motivated you are to do it,” says Julia Basso, PhD, assistant professor and director of the Embodied Brain Laboratory at Virginia Tech University. When you crave movement, it’s easier to do it on the sly. Eventually, all those minutes will add up to 150 a week, or more.

Improve mood and thinking as well as your health

Short bouts 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 like serotonin and dopamine. It also stimulates the release of growth factors that, over time, help new brain cells sprout.

And the movement brings benefits almost immediately. In a recent Japanese study, running for just 10 minutes improved people’s mood and reaction times in a color-word matching test. The brain scans showed more activity in the areas of the prefrontal cortex that control things like attention, planning and working memory.

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

Instead, level it up by adding another brain-boosting element, like social connection or rhythmic music. Take a walk with a friend, for example, or turn on a playlist and dance.

Get fit through short, hard bursts

Government exercise guidelines recognize that the harder you work, the faster you get rewarded. Choosing more vigorous activities, where you breathe so hard you can only gasp out a few words, cuts the minimum requirement in half to 75 minutes per week.

Plus, intensity provides additional gains in fitness, says Wall. This includes improving sport-specific skills and developing anaerobic endurance, or the ability to work harder for longer periods of time.

But the short and hard approach has its challenges. It is often difficult to replicate in the real world what happened in a laboratory. (Coyle’s cycling experiments, for example, use specialized bicycles.) Heating first can add time; people in the stair-climbing 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 of overtraining or injury, says Wall. Even Coyle himself alternates 3 days a week of 4-second bike training with steady 45-minute rides, when he can watch Netflix.

Longer sessions provide greater improvements in health markers like blood pressure and resting heart rate, says Wall. And while any movement is better than none, mixing everything from the exercise you do to the duration and intensity of it probably provides the most benefits.

Consider these “ingredients” of physical activity ideas, says Wall. “We all eat vegetables, but some of us like bell peppers better than carrots and tomatoes. We all need to eat our five fruits and vegetables a day, but there is a lot of variation in how we combine them. Movement works the same way.”

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