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Time is of the essence these days or, at least, a lack of it. Studies show a busy and overworked life has become somewhat of “an aspirational status symbol.” As a result of all this busyness, the popularity of quick workouts, such as high intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) or quick workout apps (like the Streaks workout app) offer a degree of fitness in just a little longer than a lengthy commercial break. But do they work? And could they be as effective as a more expensive or time-consuming workout?
Quick workouts really do work — in a pinch
Science says yes — at first glance. A 2016 study of sedentary men over 12 weeks examined whether sprint interval training (SIT), 1-minute bursts of intense exercise within a 10-minute routine, could improve insulin sensitivity (lowering your blood sugar) and cardiometabolic health as well as a 50-minute workout. And what do you know, the benefits proved similar.
Michael Joyner, M.D., an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic, agrees that short bursts of intense callisthenic exercise can go a long way toward getting fit. “A 5-to-10 minute workout, if done consistently, coupled with building as much cardio into your daily life by doing things like walking the dog and taking the stairs every chance you get, can all add up to get you in shape. Maybe not in enough shape to do the Iron Man, but definitely in shape,” says Joyner.
A 5-to-10 minute workout, if done consistently, coupled with building as much cardio into your daily life by doing things like walking the dog and taking the stairs every chance you get, can all add up to get you in shape.
He says the simple act of contracting your muscles can help improve insulin sensitivity and improve heart function. “When your heart rate rises and blood pumps through heart vessels to your muscles, the blood flowing through vessels literally rubs against the lining of the blood vessels. This causes the cells that line the blood vessels to release substances that promote both short and long-term relaxation of the vessels and inhibits the formation of plaques. This is good for heart health and protective against high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (artery hardening),” Joyner explains.
Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise science and health promotion and director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University, studied how young adults who engaged in short bursts of high intensity interval exercise and sprint interval exercise had similar results in terms of fat loss and cardiovascular health as those who did longer workouts, or “continuous steady-state exercise.”
“We have found that sessions of just 2-minute duration, as long as they are moderately intense (meaning you reach at least 70 percent of your maximum heart rate) performed just once an hour throughout a workday (meaning 8, 2-minute brisk walks, for example) are beneficial for blood glucose control. This might be useful for people at work who don’t have time for a ‘real’ workout,” Gaesser says.
Longer workouts can also improve your mental health
Jeff Halevy, a health and fitness expert from New York City who runs Halvey Life, an integrated health and wellness gym, says the benefits you can glean from shorter or longer workouts all depend on your personal health and fitness goals.
“If you’re working out to improve cognitive ability or mental well-being, then 20 minutes of continuous exercise is your sweet spot,” Halevy says. This review of 30 studies, exercising at a moderate pace for 20 minutes, 3 times weekly can help stave off depression and help prevent cognitive decline. “If you’re looking to improve your quality of life by improving your body’s ability to metabolize oxygen (improving brain, cardiac and lung function) and boost your metabolism, 5-10 minutes might help on days you can’t do more,” Halevy says.
Short and long workouts work best together
But is one option better than the other? “As with most things in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle,” says Halevy. “Some days you can get away with 5 minutes. Some days you can do 20 minutes. If you want to do something for BDNF that’s more like Miracle Grow for your brain (BDNF, or brain-derived neurotropic factor, results in improved brain function) you’ll need a little more time, exercise and resistance training.”
Similarly, Gaesser suggests “mixing things up” by alternating 30-minute workouts at a near constant intensity, 30-minutes alternating high and low intensity speeds every few minutes, and short 10-minute workouts. He also recommends a 3-to-5 minute warm-up and cool down before and after each workout.
And if you want to get your body in shape, Joyner says you’ll still need to watch what you eat. “Most of us don’t get enough physical activity to outrun a bad diet,” Joyner says. “But chronic low levels of physical activity can provide a buffer if someone has a bad day.”
Ultimately, all three experts agree that working out in some way most days — even if just for 5 minutes — is always better than doing nothing. “People tend to focus on what they can’t do instead of what they can do,” says Joyner. “Don’t think you need a magic workout. The important thing is that you find something that works for you.”