Emotional Health

On the Bright Side: Exercise—It Takes Only a Minute (Literally) to Improve Fitness

UntitledIllustration by C.A. Martin

We are constantly bombarded with recommendations about exercise and its benefits. Hardly a day goes by when there is not another study published detailing the salutary effects of fitness when it comes to staying healthy and fending off problems of aging. Being a couch potato has been compared to being a smoker as an example of an avoidable form of self-harm.

If you’re like me, however, all this pressure is enough to make you want to curl up with a good book or take a nap. What is the answer for those among us who are not likely to jump into the fitness craze with no reservations?

Experts disagree, though everyone says it’s good to move more. Last week, on our site Jonathan Urla referenced the National Physical Activity Plan (NPAP), which recommends that we think of exercise as moving around more, in an effort to help people see that many forms of physical activity that we do as part of our everyday lives count as exercise. Mr. Urla feels that this suggestion is likely to let many feel that they are doing enough when in fact they are not.  He writes, “Over the course of teaching people to exercise for over 30 years, I have found that the more specific you can get with setting a goal, the more likely people will actually make an effort.” He recommends the setting of goals and making plans as a way to ensure that you get the proper amount of exercise.

However, the “proper amount” itself is still under investigation. And, as in all things, it depends on who you are and what your motivation is. If you are aiming to increase your general wellbeing and achieve optimal health, the news is good. Last week, Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times reported the results of a new study that those with little time or motivation will find encouraging.

Scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, did a careful experiment comparing different types of exercise, using three groups of out-of-shape young men (women will be studied in future experiments). One group was a control, changing nothing about their lifestyle. Another did a standard 45-minute routine of moderate exercise, and “The final group was assigned to interval training, using the most abbreviated workout yet to have shown benefits. Specifically, the volunteers warmed up for two minutes on stationary bicycles, then pedaled as hard as possible for 20 seconds; rode at a very slow pace for two minutes, sprinted all-out again for 20 seconds; recovered with slow riding for another two minutes; pedaled all-out for a final 20 seconds; then cooled down for three minutes. The entire workout lasted 10 minutes, with only one minute of that time being strenuous.

By the end of the study, published in PLOS One, “the endurance group had ridden for 27 hours, while the interval group had ridden for six hours, with only 36 minutes of that time being strenuous.”

The results were remarkable. While the control group showed no changes, the experimental groups in both conditions showed identical gains.

“In both groups, endurance had increased by nearly 20 percent, insulin resistance likewise had improved significantly, and there were significant increases in the number and function of certain microscopic structures in the men’s muscles that are related to energy production and oxygen consumption.”

The Times correspondent was so impressed with this result that she said it twice: “Let me repeat that finding: One minute of arduous exercise was comparable in its physiological effects to 45 minutes of gentler sweating.”

Both approaches worked equally well in producing significant health gains, except that one takes much less time. Almost anyone can imagine a workout that takes only 10 minutes, especially if only one minute of that time involves strenuous activity.

RELATED: Need Motivation to Exercise — Get Specific

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  • Diane May 9, 2016 at 9:32 am

    This review of new ways to get some benefit of exercise is very heartening. Something is better than nothing!