Super Short Workouts Can Be Surprisingly Effective

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It sounds like one of those outrageous claims in infomercials: Get fitter and healthier after just one minute of exercise. But in this case, the statement is not too good to be true. There’s now plenty of research showing that even workouts of 10 minutes or less can produce real, meaningful results, says Jenna Gillen, an exercise physiologist at the University of Toronto. Gillen’s work has shown that even a one-minute workout, done right, can improve your fitness and health.

Of course, there’s a caveat: To get results from such short workouts, you have to be willing to push yourself, says Gillen. Many studies have shown that intense interval training protocols can achieve results from relatively short workouts. Gillen and his colleagues at McMaster University wanted to know how short this workout could be.

The answer, according to a study they did in 2016, was: one minute of intense exercise in a workout lasting 10 minutes total (including warm-up and cool-down), three times a week.

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Gillen’s team randomly divided the participants into three groups. One pedaled an exercise bike at a moderate effort level for 45 minutes, three times a week. A second group did the 10-minute workouts three times a week that included three 20-second segments of full sprint cycling, for a total of one minute of high intensity each workout. (The rest of the time was an easy rotation.) A third group served as controls and did nothing.

After 12 weeks, both exercise groups had improved their insulin resistance and had also increased their fitness (measured by their ability to use oxygen during exercise) by about 19%. The gains were similar between the groups, although the group doing short high-intensity interval workouts only expended about 22% of the exercise as the group doing longer traditional workouts.

Similarly, a 2020 study by researchers at Erlangen University Hospital in Germany put 65 sedentary, obese volunteers through an exercise program that consisted of warming up on an exercise bike for two minutes and then to do five one-minute sessions at 80 to 95 percent of their maximum heart rate, with easy pedaling recovery periods of one minute in between. With the three-minute cool-down, the total workout time was 14 minutes, and these workouts were done twice a week for 12 weeks. The participants in this simple program of 28 minutes per week improved their VO2max scores (a measure of cardiovascular fitness), and they also reduced their blood pressure and waist circumference.

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According to Louise de Lannoy, exercise physiologist at Eastern Children’s Hospital, the improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness observed in these studies are a good predictor of reduced risk of morbidity and mortality, and are particularly important for people at risk of developing diabetes or other metabolic conditions. Ontario Research Institute.

Still, the intensity required to get the benefits of short workouts takes some enthusiasm.

“Especially for someone who has been sedentary, doing that maximum effort can be very difficult,” says de Lannoy. This level of intensity feels quite – you go as hard as you can. “But it can also be fun. It’s quick, a bit of pain, you rest and start again,” de Lannoy said.

Another 2020 study confirmed that some people find these interval exercise programs enjoyable enough to continue. Exercise scientist Matthew Stork of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues brought a group of previously sedentary adults into the lab to do short workouts with high-intensity one-minute intervals on an exercise bike. Participants reported that the high-intensity bouts were difficult, but some enjoyed them enough to continue doing them after the study.

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“I’ve tried these workouts myself and it takes a lot of self-coaching to get to 90 percent of your max,” says de Lannoy. That said, if you train with repeated hard intervals and a short rest period, they are likely to get harder as you go, so even if your first interval is only 60% of your max, by the third or on the fourth you might be closer to 90%, she said. If you don’t have an exercise bike, climbing stairs quickly is another good way to get your heart rate up quickly.

“A good rule of thumb is to build over time,” says de Lannoy. “You can start at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate and then try to increase it over time and get to 90%.

Short Workouts Can Build Muscle

Cardio workouts aren’t the only ones getting shorter. Studies also show that you can gain a lot of strength with short weight training workouts.

A 2019 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise investigated the correlation between number of sets of exercises performed and strength gains.

Study participants did a similar routine of seven strength-training exercises, three times a week. One group did five sets of exercises each session, another group did three sets, and the third group did only one set of exercises per workout. At the end of the eight-week program, all groups had achieved similar improvements in muscle strength and endurance. Doing three or five sets per workout increased exercise duration, but it didn’t result in greater gains. (However, the group that did the longer workouts had greater increases in muscle size in the thighs and elbow flexors.)

How short bursts of high-intensity exercise could keep you (relatively) fit

There’s often skepticism around the idea of ​​short workouts, as they’ve been described as gimmicky, says James Steele, Associate Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at Solent University in England and Senior Researcher at the London-based UKActive Research Institute. But he says if you’re aiming to get stronger, you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of time in the gym or do a lot of reps. Instead, what’s important is to do the exercise until you reach “momentary muscle failure” — the point at which you can’t complete another rep. Steele was part of a research team that published evidence-based resistance training recommendations calling a single set of eight to 12 reps to momentary muscle failuree.

Dutch company Fit20 runs franchise fitness studios that specialize in this “minimal effective dose” approach to workouts. It has a dataset of nearly 15,000 people who participated in their program over a seven-year period, and Steele’s team recently used it to model people’s strength progression over time. weather. The team found that Fit20 members made substantial strength gains (on the order of 30-50% gains in the first year), despite minimal training: a single set of four to six repetitions of six exercises, once a week. .

The study shows you can make significant improvements in your muscle strength in just one short training session a week, but Steele says he recommends people aim for twice a week so that if they miss a session, they stay on track.

The minimum effective dose approach isn’t just for average people. Studies carried out by Patroklos Androulakis-Korakakis, researcher at the University of Solent and coach at, a science-backed strength training program, shows it works for highly trained athletes, too. He conducted studies on serious weightlifters and found that they also achieved substantial strength gains while following a minimally effective dose plan.

Remarkably, weightlifters in the Androulakis-Korakakis studies who trained with a minimal dose approach ended up experiencing very little pain. “They had very low pain scores, one or less on a scale of one to five,” he says.

Androulakis-Korakakis says his research suggests that “Hey, you could do a lot less than you currently do and see great results.” A minimalist approach may not yield the absolute best results, but it does get a lot more bang for your buck, especially considering the time and recovery trade-offs, he says.

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Turning to shorter workouts isn’t just a way to save time. It can also help you keep getting fit even when life gets in your way.

“Let’s say you have exams coming up or your work resumes and you only have a few hours a week” to exercise, says Androulakis-Korakakis. Instead of feeling like your strength and muscle mass will suffer, turning to a minimal dose approach can help you continue to build your fitness.

“It’s hard to pretend you don’t have 10 or 15 minutes that you can find. It’s just not about checking your email one more time or quitting social media,” says de Lannoy.

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