Whether it’s YouTube videos at home, trips to the gym or group fitness classes, the first workouts of the new year are never pretty and almost always the same, dramatic scenes. You’re sweating profusely, out of breath, and trying not to puke when you finally brace yourself and glance at the clock.
Great, only 45 minutes left.
It really shouldn’t be that hard. A growing body of evidence suggests that shorter workouts of 10 minutes or less have a variety of health benefits that have not been emphasized in years past. Another study published in Nature explores the benefits of shorter workouts, or “micro-patterns,” such as regularly climbing the stairs at the office or power-walking to the train during a commute.
For anyone who prioritizes longevity over abs in the gym, the findings are compelling. Researchers followed 25,241 people who had an average age of 61.8 years and were characterized as non-exercise but engaged in “unexplored movement patterns such as short bursts of intense intermittent physical activity (VILPA) – something that is built into everyday life , such as “washing dishes, playing with children, gardening and going for walks.”
When the participants were followed up almost seven years later, researchers found that engaging in three one- to two-minute workouts a day was enough to significantly reduce the risk of dying from cancer, cardiovascular disease, or “all-cause mortality.” Yet when you Google “how long should my workout be?”, you’ll get answers extolling the benefits of 45- to 90-minute sessions, not a handful of one- to two-minute workouts a day. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) does source short, intense sprints for exercise, but usually stack them up to put together at least a half-hour workout.
But the shorter workouts haven’t caught on quickly. You don’t see many motivational posters all over the gym that say, “Takes less than 10 minutes!”
Rob Wagener, a personal trainer and wellness author, suspects this is due to the lack of perceived profits for business owners. “The fitness industry and culture may not fully embrace the idea of shorter workouts because they’re not as traditional or as easy to sell,” says Wagener. After all, it’s hard to get people to pay for a five- to 10-minute workout routine.
That hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs like Ulrich Dempfle, CEO and co-founder of CAROL Bike, a stationary cycle that boasts the shortest and most effective workouts that take just five minutes a day. After working as a management consultant in home health and hospitals, Dempfle noticed that although exercise is one of the most beneficial preventative measures and treatments for a number of chronic diseases and heart problems, most people still wouldn’t do it.
“It’s consistent with the broader population,” Dempfle says. And to be fair, less than a quarter of people in the United States meet the government’s exercise guidelines. “Scientific studies consistently show that lack of time is the key barrier, so there is clearly a great need for shorter, time-efficient exercises,” he adds.
Dempfle came across REHIT (Reduced Exertion High-intensity Interval Training), a type of HIIT workout with two sets of shorter 20-second sprints that some studies suggest can be more effective than traditional exercise. The problem was that there was no commercially available fitness equipment that could accommodate REHIT workouts, so he built the CAROL Bike, which has options for a short five-minute introductory ride, even though the standard REHIT workout is eight minutes and 40 seconds. It’s essentially Peloton for people with no time for Peloton.
For Dempfel, the biggest challenge is convincing people that shorter workouts can actually be effective. After being told “no pain, no gain” for so long, people find it hard to believe the premise. “REHIT is a unique exception to this rule, and so it takes time for the science to be recognized and accepted,” says Dempfle. “We’re still in the early stages, but we’ve built a strong community of more than 20,000 riders and are working hard to spread the word.”
The CAROL bike has appealed to busy parents like Joel Evan, health coach and podcast host The hacked life, who exercised at least one hour, six days a week, before having children. “My time was up, but I wanted to maintain my health,” says Evan. As a health coach, Evan started reading the research and consulting with experts and “knew it was possible.”
Along with the bike, Evan is a fan of the X3 Bar, a resistance band device created by Dr. John Jackish, author of Weight lifting is a waste of time and so is cardio. His adventures with the bar helped him build strength while maintaining his commitment to about 10 minutes a day. In the nine years since she’s had kids, “I’ve averaged about 10 to 20 minutes of exercise a day,” says Evan. “I’ve maintained my muscle mass as well as my overall health.”
Other companies are starting to make the short leap to shorter workouts. Nike recently partnered with Netflix to release their “Nike Training Club” series, which offers a variety of 10-minute HIIT classes as well as 20- and 30-minute videos. So in many ways shorter workouts have become necessary, but they work especially well for people who can stick to a less-is-more routine.
At the same time, some people may never commit to a 10-minute workout because they genuinely enjoy being at the gym. “For many people, working out is that one hour they can spend alone,” says personal trainer Jay Quarmby. “When you only do a five-minute workout, you get the benefit of the workout, but not anything else.” Whether it’s decompressing from work, thinking about life, or just listening to a podcast, that extra time is dedicated to doing something good.
Plus, for those who feel exhausted within the first few minutes of a run or CrossFit class, going a full hour without stopping can feel like a real victory. And of course, it’s possible to feel a similar sense of accomplishment from getting through a 10-minute workout, but only if you’re really out of shape.
After all, a long workout can be worth the time—not for your glutes or abs, as you might expect, but for your mental health. However, if you don’t have hours to spare, know that there are already science-based ways to improve your health by simply moving your body for a few minutes at a time. The unfortunate conclusion is that there are no excuses for sitting around and doing nothing. Exercise is a bit like Jell-O. Like it or not, there’s always room for it.
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