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Fitness in Five Minutes: The Busy Person's Guide to Micro Workouts

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Work, family life, home improvements, self-care, chores: The list of demands on our time is nearly unending. It can be difficult to find an extra hour in the day to devote to working out. But could you find five minutes? Just a few short bursts of exercise lasting 1-2 minutes – routines sometimes called “micro workouts” or “exercise snacks” – can improve your fitness level almost as much as longer workouts if they are done regularly.

The CDC recommends adults get at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise plus some strength-training sessions every week for optimal health. For those just starting out or for people with limited time, this can feel like an overwhelming task on the to-do list. Fortunately, recent research suggests that a few higher-intensity micro-workouts, totaling just 15-20 minutes a week, may be an alternative.

The benefits of a micro workout

No matter what your fitness level is, small bursts of intense movement are a healthy, achievable option. In a seven-year study recently published in the European Heart Journal, scientists found that exercising vigorously for a total of 19 minutes each week was associated with a 40% lower risk of developing heart disease. Another study concluded that sedentary women improved their cardio-respiratory fitness by doing 20 seconds of vigorous stair climbing three times a day (a daily total of just one minute!) for a period of three weeks.

The key to success for these micro workouts is vigorous movement. But what is that exactly? As a rule, if you can talk comfortably during exercise, you are working out at a moderate level of intensity. If you can only speak a few words (or can’t talk at all) after about 30 seconds of activity, that is considered vigorous movement.

Micro workouts with vigorous movement are short but effective, giving you the most bang for your exercise buck. But the advantages of the quick exercise snack go beyond physical fitness. Here are a few more:

  • Commitment factor: Knowing that you only have to commit for a minute or two is a relief from the mental load of planning time for a long workout session. This can help you form a routine and stay committed in the long term.
  • Motivation: If you’ve ever crossed something off your to-do list, you know how motivating it can be. Once you experience the feeling of accomplishing your workout, you may be motivated to keep going.
  • Save time, save money: Some say time is money. Either way, you’ll save on both if you focus on home-based workouts that are under five minutes.
  • Quicker recovery time: Exhaustion be gone. Since your heart and muscles are working in quick bursts, they’ll take less time to recover before they’re ready to go again.
  • Muscle strength: More frequent use leads to greater muscle strength, according to scientists. Doing shorter workouts every day as opposed to a longer weekly session can help improve your strength.

Getting started

Doing a few micro workouts throughout the day can greatly improve your health. And since the goal is just a minute or two of activity, you don’t need a gym membership or any special equipment to get moving. In fact, you can get started just about anywhere! Try these ideas to kick-start your progress:

  • At home: Try a couple of minutes of high-intensity jumping jacks, high knees, burpees or mountain climbers.
  • At the office: Instead of the elevator, test out the 20-second stair sprint to get you up a floor or two.
  • Outside: Go for a quick run around the block or down your favorite park trail.

While people who are more inactive stand to gain the most from these high-intensity exercise snacks, even fitness fanatics can benefit:

  • At the gym: During training, add a jump-rope session to your interval circuit.
  • On your daily jaunt: Add a quick sprint at your highest intensity into your regular run or bike ride.

If you’re worried about high-impact activity on your knees, consider low-impact alternatives like swimming laps, using an elliptical or rowing machine, cycling or doing modified body-weight exercises (think burpees without the jump).

Does exercising seem overwhelming? Your Ochsner Concierge Health membership includes one-on-one sessions with an exercise physiologist to help you reach your fitness goals – no matter your level of experience.

The art of accidental exercise

If you can’t muster up the willpower to get started, there’s good news. The benefits of micro workouts extend into non-exercise activity. According to researchers, brief bursts of activity that occur during everyday life also count. This kind of activity is known by experts as “vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity,” or VILPA. An example of this might be running to catch the bus or chasing after an energetic puppy.

Compared to their sedentary counterparts, people who made no specific effort to work out but had two or three short bursts of activity each day just from living life, significantly lowered their risk of premature death. In fact, scientists found that a few bouts of VILPA a day decreased participants’ mortality risks from both cancer and cardiovascular disease – the top two leading causes of death – by up to 49%.

For the busy person, this could be the easiest way to get a workout in. Think about your daily routine and consider what you’re already doing: How can you hack your own schedule to add an activity burst? March in place while waiting for your coffee to brew? Do some calve raises while brushing your teeth? The possibilities are endless. A few exercise snacks – and an apple – a day may really keep the doctor away.

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