April 4, 2022 – Some people thrive on hours-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, prior bad fitness experiences, or the hopelessly overscheduled.
That doesn’t mean they have to forgo 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 cottage fitness industry that has risen in response by promising physical transformations in X minutes a day (or less!).
What’s true? What’s too good to be true? Can bursts of activity of only 10 minutes or less really help improve your health and fitness? Even when U.S. government guidelines recommend 2½ to 5 hours of moderate exercise per week?
The research says yes. While you should never expect total-body transformation, workouts of even 10 minutes or less really can 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 pinpoint just how short you can make your exercise sessions and still benefit, 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 in the latter, also build muscle mass). Other studies have shown that shorter “exercise snacks” – climbing three flights of stairs three times, with 1 to 4 hours in between – improved fitness over 6 weeks.
By turning up the intensity, Coyle says, these interval sessions temporarily deprive your muscles of both fuel and the oxygen they need to make more fuel, just as longer workouts do. 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 less-intense physical activity isn’t helpful, too. It is. In fact, there are several ways you can approach shorter movement sessions.
‘Accumulate’ a Healthier Lifestyle by Moving Throughout the Day
To reap the many benefits of physical activity – from lower blood pressure to better sleep to a longer life – health experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity weekly. Moderate means your heart’s beating faster, but you can still speak.
That averages out to 20 minutes daily. 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 U.S. government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans specifically states 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 again 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 one solid workout.
“Being very sedentary all day and just doing 30 minutes of exercise once a day is not 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 workout session is better than nothing, it may not reverse the damage done by all that sitting.
Remember: Our bodies are designed for movement. It’s OK to work up to 150 minutes gradually. Begin where you are, perhaps with a 5-minute walk around the block or easy stretches or exercises on the nearest patch of carpet. Be consistent, then add on – it’ll feel easier as your body and mind adapt.
“Data shows the more you exercise, the more motivated you’ll be to exercise,” says Julia Basso, PhD, an assistant professor and director of the Embodied Brain Laboratory at Virginia Tech University. When you crave movement, it’s easier to sneak it in. Eventually, all those minutes will add up to 150 a week – or more.
Improve 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 levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. It also stimulates the release of growth factors that, over time, help sprout new brain cells.
And movement brings perks nearly right away. In a recent Japanese study, running for just 10 minutes improved people’s moods and reaction times 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 low, stressed, or stuck on a tough problem at work, try a 10-minute break for moderate movement. In this case, don’t go all-out – tougher workouts still benefit your brain over time, but the immediate stress response may temporarily cloud your thinking, Basso says.
Instead, level up by adding another brain-boosting element like social connection or rhythmic music. Walk with a friend, for instance, or fire up a playlist and dance.
Gain Fitness Through Brief, Hard Bursts
The government’s exercise guidelines acknowledge the harder you work, the faster you reap rewards. Choosing more vigorous activities – where you’re breathing so hard you can only gasp a few words – halves the minimum requirement to 75 minutes weekly.
Plus, intensity brings added fitness gains, Wall says. This includes getting better at sport-specific skills and building anaerobic endurance, or the ability to work harder for longer periods of time.
But the short, hard approach has its challenges. It’s often tricky to repeat in the real world what happened in a lab. (Coyle’s cycling experiments, for example, use specialized bikes.) Warming up first can add time; people in the stair-climbing study began 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, Wall says. Even Coyle himself alternates 3 days per week of 4-second cycling training with 45-minute steady rides, when he can watch Netflix.
Longer sessions bring greater improvements in health markers like blood pressure and resting heart rate, Wall says. And while any movement is better than none, mixing up everything – from the exercise you do to how long and intense it is – likely provides the biggest bounty of benefits.
Consider these physical activity ideas “ingredients,” Wall says. “We all eat vegetables, but some of us like bell peppers more than carrots and tomatoes. We all need to get our five fruits and vegetables a day – but how we mix it up, there’s a lot of variation there. Movement works the same way.”