By Marygrace Taylor*
“I have tons of free time to work out!” said no one ever. It’s no secret that regular exercise is essential for your health and wellbeing. But when you constantly find yourself wishing you had more hours in the day, shorter, more intense workouts just make sense.
Experts agree that harder, faster sweat sessions can help you reap the benefits of exercise when you’re up against the clock. “If there’s anything you can do to get a greater return on your workout, it’s to increase the intensity,” says Christopher Jordan, Director of Exercise Physiology at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute. Instead of spending an hour walking, you can get the same results with 20 or 30 minutes of interval training.
But what about 15 minutes? Or 10? Or even 5? If you push yourself hard enough, can you really squeeze in a worthwhile workout in the time it takes to answer a couple of emails?
Here’s what the experts have to say. Plus, how you can make the most of your workout when you’re tight on time.
The Science of Short Workouts
In general, one minute of vigorous or high-intensity exercise will deliver similar benefits to two minutes of moderate exercise. Problem is, most of us can only sweat it out at an intense pace for so long before we start to sputter out.
That’s where intervals — intense bursts of exercise followed by brief recovery periods — come in. “Interval training allows anyone to get a more intense, more vigorous workout,” Jordan says. And that’s where the real value is.
And researchers agree that you don’t need much time. In a 2013 paper published in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, researchers outlined a seven-minute, high-intensity circuit that could be repeated, depending on the amount of time the subject had to devote to exercise.
Another 2013 paper, this time from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, states that Tabata-style workouts — which consist of 20 seconds of very intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of recovery, repeated in four-minute segments — can increase fitness more than longer sessions of steady-state exercise. Participants in this study did the four-minute segments for a total of 20 minutes.
A four-minute sweat session might sound incredible, but the workouts get shorter still. Research published in a 2016 issue of the journal PLoS One found that a mere one minute of all-out exercise (within the context of a 10-minute session) yields about the same benefits as 45 minutes of moderate physical activity.
Why Shorter Isn’t Always Better
But if a one-, four- or seven-minute workout sounds too good to be true, that might be because it is. Just because it’s possible to attempt a super-intense workout in the name of saving time doesn’t mean that you necessarily should.
“In the case of the Tabata workout study, you have very fit, elite Olympic athletes, and they were performing repeated bouts of all-out exercise,” Jordan says. “That’s not something I would prescribe to the general population.” In other words, unless you’re in tip-top shape to begin with, trying to push yourself that hard might end up doing more harm than good. You could end up overexerting yourself and get nauseous, faint or pull a muscle.
And there’s more. When you perform a highly intense interval workout, you’ll probably feel pretty uncomfortable. After all, if you’re only working out for a few minutes, the only way to see results is by pushing yourself as hard as you possibly can.
But for plenty of people, that level of discomfort can be a big turn-off. When researchers with the American Council on Exercise (ACE) compared subjects performing Tabata-style workouts to those performing 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous steady-state exercise, they found that those in the Tabata group enjoyed themselves a lot less.
So while you might be able to force yourself through that kind of pain for a few days or weeks, after a while, it might get tougher to stay motivated. “Regardless of how effective an exercise training program might be, adherence to any meaningful period of time is unlikely in programs that are not enjoyable,” ACE researchers say. If you hate your workout, you’re a lot less likely to stick with it.
Make the Most of Your Workout
Adding high-intensity intervals to your sweat session is a great way to reap more of exercise’s rewards in less time. The key is to think short — but not too short.
If you’re a walker, that might mean a 30-minute session that alternates two minutes of brisk walking with two minutes of brisk jogging, says Jordan. For runners, a 20-minute session with one or two minutes of hard running followed by a minute of jogging is a good place to start.
Want to take it to the next level? Try 30 minutes of compound strength training moves with little to no rest in between each move, says RIPPED Fitness NYC trainer Courtney Paul. “For instance, a push-up to shoulder press for a minute engages your chest, triceps, legs and shoulders,” he says. In just one move, you’re stimulating several different muscle fibers. And by adding resistance or weights, you’ll torch the greatest number of calories in the shortest amount of time.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t bother lacing up your sneakers unless you can devote a full half hour to exercise. “To me, any workout is better than no workout,” Paul says. Try jogging at a moderate pace for 10 or even five minutes. Even that amount of exercise could deliver cardiovascular benefits that help you live a longer, healthier life, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
And of course, don’t discount the power of building extra activity into your everyday activities. “Take the stairs rather than the elevator or park farther from your destination so you walk a little further,” Paul says. While those types of tactics aren’t enough to replace regular sweat sessions, they can help you move more on days when you don’t have time for a full workout.
*Marygrace Taylor is a health and wellness writer who’s work has appeared in Glamour, Redbook, Prevention, Women’s Health, and others. Visit her at marygracetaylor.com.