How Long Does Your Workout Really Need to Be?
Tight on time? Master the "exercise snack" and you can keep your results rolling in. Here's how.
You overslept. A meeting overran. The weather took a turn. Suddenly the hour you planned for your workout has been whittled down to a few minutes. Rather than throw in the gym towel for the day, you may want to consider doing a minute each of squats, burpees and sit-ups on the spot. Because similar to how you can snack your way to satiety, experts are learning that bite-size bouts of fitness—called "exercise snacking"—spread throughout the day can add up to fully fledged results.
To be clear, this includes any kind of super-short workout, ranging from one set of one move to a quick series of multiple moves, but it excludes general movement. So sprinting a flight of stairs a few times counts, but taking the stairs instead of the elevator doesn't.
Until recently, official exercise guidelines in countries including the United States and United Kingdom recommended adults get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week in bouts of no less than 10 minutes, no matter how intense. However, the 10-minute rule has been scrapped, thanks to mounting data that says every little bit helps.
"We couldn't find any evidence that you had to get the activity in 10 minutes or more. You still got health benefits when exercise was spread throughout the day", says William E. Kraus, MD, the director of clinical translation at Duke University's Center for Living, who has studied the long-term effects of short bouts of activity.
"We couldn't find any evidence that you had to get the activity in 10 minutes or more. You still got health benefits when exercise was spread throughout the day".
William E. Kraus, Director of Clinical Translation at Duke University's Center for Living
Why the Type of Exercise Matters
When it comes to cardio, short workouts probably can't replace a full one. Research shows that your body needs sustained cardiovascular stress to develop aerobic fitness, and even three 10-minute bouts spread throughout the day won't cut it. "If you have these very long recovery periods, your heart rate gets up transiently, but it comes back down relatively quickly", says Martin Gibala, PhD, a professor at McMaster University in Ontario, who led the aforementioned study. "So spacing out that kind of cardiovascular challenge isn't as helpful".
Though you won't get a great cardio advance, studies suggest that exercise snacks can boost muscle strength and function and improve your chances of being healthy in the long run. In fact, researchers in New Zealand found that six one-minute bursts of intense activity close to mealtimes can help control blood sugar levels more effectively than a continuous 30-minute session, perhaps because the intense intervals better manage insulin sensitivity.
And a study at the University of Mississippi found that low-rep, super-heavy lifts—like a one-rep max—can increase your strength by as much as doing four sets of eight to 12 reps does, likely because they throw different but equal stress on your muscles. So if you have a garage full of equipment, consider banging out a quick set when you're short on time or feeling strong (just don't forget to warm up).
"When it comes to resistance exercise, the snack approach is likely to incur benefits close to a workout that you perform all together", says Gibala, who used the method himself to stay in shape when he couldn't get to the gym. For building strength, as long as the overall volume is the same, your body probably doesn't know the difference between a lifting circuit done at once or broken up throughout the day.
How to Snack Yourself Fit
To maintain or even progress your strength and definition, do the most effective version of your workout you can with the time you have. According to Nike Master Trainer Joe Holder, who's a fan of exercise snacking, that means doing two things.
The first: Work harder in a standalone burst than you would during a longer workout. When you go all out, you recruit more of the fast-twitch muscle fibres needed for quick, powerful movements, like sprinting, jumping and Olympic lifting. If you do this, you can replicate the training load of a longer workout in a fraction of the time, says Gibala.
For example, say you were planning on doing three sets of 10 push-ups at the gym, but for whatever reason, you can't make it there. Instead of doing 10 push-ups three times throughout the day, train to failure—as in, do as many reps as you can (with good form) within each set, for as many sets as you have time for, says Holder. Another way to dial up the intensity is to slow down each rep, which increases your time under tension. This strengthens muscles by making them work for longer.
The second: Perform complex moves, like high-knee running in place, Spiderman push-ups or thrusters (squats with a press). These rope in multiple muscle groups to maximise the efficiency of your mini WOD. "Not only will you strengthen more areas of the body at once, but you'll also get your heart rate up faster than you would working just one muscle, so you get more of a metabolic pay-off too", Holder says.
The Cherry on Top
While exercise snacks may not deliver the same endorphin hit as longer sessions do, Holder says he believes there is one other key advantage to doing regular, short bursts of exercise: It can change your mindset. "The mental benefits you get from having tiny positive habits is key", says Holder. For him, that means getting right to it when he wakes up. "Every day, I'm going to try my best to make it a good day, and that starts with five minutes of movement".
You can have your cake and eat it too, because there's room for both training methods in your routine. Complementing your meals with nutritious snacks can give your body the variety it needs and craves—and adding exercise snacks, particularly on days you're starved for time, can too.