Mind & Body

No Time to Exercise? Try These 4 Super-Short Workouts Based on Science

We don't know if you've heard, but obesity is on the rise. To fight the epidemic, scientists are hard at work finding ways to make healthy habits an easy fit for people's lives. One big area of research: how to exercise as little as possible while still seeing health benefits. While global guidelines still recommend at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week, if you're truly determined to take a shortcut, there are ways to do it in much, much less time.

Done Already?

Most of the super-short workouts that have been coming out of scientific journals are based on the concept of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT: a workout that ditches the long, steady endurance sessions for quick bursts of grueling cardio with rests in between. The first study to prove that this kind of low-time-commitment workout could actually improve your health as much as traditional cardio was published about a decade ago. Authored by exercise scientist Martin Gibala and his colleagues, it centered on a workout consisting of 30-second sprint intervals on an exercise bike repeated four to six times with 4.5-minute rests in between. After doing this workout three times a week for six weeks, the participants demonstrated the same metabolic adaptations as others who had cycled at a steady pace for 40 to 60 minutes five times a week.

That's right: about 25 minutes of exercise three times a week was comparable to about 50 minutes of exercise five times a week. That's the power of high-intensity interval training. Since then, Gibala and his team have sought to find exactly how short they can make those intervals and still get the same results. In 2016, they published a study in PLOS One that found that you could make them as brief as three 20-second intervals, equating 10 minutes of HIIT to 50 minutes of steady cycling. (This became the basis for Gibala's New York Times bestselling book, "The One-Minute Workout" — named for the three 20-second intervals, not counting rest periods).

If you're dismayed at all the cardio required of these workouts, by the way, don't fret: A recent study from researchers at the University of Glasgow found that doing one set each of nine different weightlifting exercises — for a workout lasting all of 15 minutes, three times a week — could boost muscle size and strength, not to mention improved insulin sensitivity.

But the search didn't stop there. In January, Gibala published research on a workout so short, you'd think he was trolling us at this point. The exercise? Running up three flights of stairs three times a day, three days a week. For those keeping score at home, that's about 20 seconds of exercise three times, for a total of one minute a day (or three minutes a week). Despite the fun-sized workout (Gibala called them exercise "snacks"), participants averaged a five percent increase in aerobic fitness over six weeks as compared to a control group that didn't exercise.

Running up the stairs certainly won't replace a regular exercise routine, but if it's all you have time for, this research shows that it can help. As for the other high-intensity interval routines, they certainly can serve as a great alternative to traditional cardio — but there's a big catch. You have to do those short intervals as hard as you can. As in, it won't be pleasant. It can't be pleasant. That means that if what's preventing you from exercising is that you hate to exercise, HIIT probably won't be your saving grace. But if time really is what's keeping you out of the gym, these abbreviated workouts can help.

Related Video: Why Is It So Hard to Start Working Out?

The Workouts

If You Have 20 Minutes

Try the workout from that game-changing 2006 study. In that regimen, participants rode stationary bikes, but you can do any exercise that gets your heart pumping: running, using a rowing machine, or jumping rope are all fine choices. As you get fitter, try adding intervals or shortening the rest period.

Warm-up: 2 minutes at an easy pace

Interval 1: 30-second sprint at near-maximum effort

Rest 1: 4.5-minute rest at an easy pace

Interval 2: 30-second sprint at near-maximum effort

Rest 2: 4.5-minute rest at an easy pace

Interval 3: 30-second sprint at near-maximum effort

Rest 3: 4.5-minute rest at an easy pace

Interval 4: 30-second sprint at near-maximum effort

Cool-down: 3 minutes at an easy pace

If You Have 15 Minutes

Hate cardio? This is for the lifters out there. For each exercise, choose a weight that's about 80 percent as heavy as the heaviest weight you can lift one time. For example, if you can row 100 pounds once, row 80 pounds as many times as you can. If you're unfamiliar with standard gym equipment, here's a resource to help you out (though we recommend having someone help you if it's your first time in the weight room).

Perform every exercise at 80 percent of maximum and repeat until failure.

  1. Leg press
  2. Leg extension
  3. Calf press/calf raise
  4. Leg flexion/hamstring curl
  5. Chest press
  6. Seated row
  7. Lat pulldown
  8. Biceps curl
  9. Triceps extension

If You Have 10 Minutes

Here's the workout from that 2016 PLOS One study. Same rules apply as for the 20-minute workout: Do whatever exercise gets your heart pumping and increase the number of intervals or decrease the rest time as you get fitter.

Warm-up: 2 minutes at an easy pace

Interval 1: 20-second sprint at near-maximum effort

Rest 1: 2-minute rest at an easy pace

Interval 2: 20-second sprint at near-maximum effort

Rest 2: 2-minute rest at an easy pace

Interval 3: 20-second sprint at near-maximum effort

Cool-down: 3 minutes at an easy pace

If Your Schedule Is Booked Solid

If you truly cannot find time in your day to exercise, this is the last resort option. This obviously works best if you have to take the stairs to get to your home or office, but if not, there are plenty of parks, parking structures, and stores that have them too.

Here's what to do: Run up the stairs as fast as you can for 20 seconds. In the study, participants ran up three flights of stairs, or 60 steps. Repeat three times a day with one to four hours between exercises. Try doing it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

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To get the science from the horse's mouth, check out Martin Gibala's New York Times bestselling book, "The One-Minute Workout." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer April 5, 2019

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