What if you could improve your health in just 3 minutes per day?
Many people have an all-or-nothing approach to exercise, believing that they must devote at least 45 minutes to an aerobic or strength-training workout or else. That's a mistake, because new research has discovered that intermittent workouts — short bursts of exercise done throughout the day — have significant health benefits and can be easily and conveniently incorporated into your schedule. As an added bonus, these three-minute mini-workouts may be the antidote to the sedentary lifestyle that has become increasingly prevalent during the pandemic.
"If you go to the gym for an hour three times a week but don't do what you should do after that, it's not as effective as you think — it won't undo a sedentary lifestyle," says Tom Holland, a Darien, Connecticut-based exercise physiologist. "It's more about the sum of your efforts than the length of each workout. Most people exercise a little bit a lot — the key is to exercise a little bit a lot."
The mind-body connection is advantageous.
In fact, studies show that people who exercise for more than 150 minutes per week in multiple bouts per day have a greater reduction in body fat and LDL cholesterol than those who exercise for 150 minutes per week in single, continuous sessions per day.
Furthermore, a study published in the 2022 issue of Sports Medicine - Open discovered that performing five or more accumulated bouts of low-to-moderate exercise ranging from one to six minutes each throughout the day produced better glucose control after meals in adults without diabetes than a single, prolonged bout of exercise.
A small study published in the Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences & Medical Sciences in 2020 discovered that interspersing periods of sitting with five minutes of light walking every 30 minutes reduced post-meal insulin and blood pressure in older adults. This led the researchers to conclude that interspersing long periods of sitting with short bursts of movement results in "significant improvements in markers of metabolic health in older adults."
"People with bad backs or other chronic injuries or pain can benefit from intermittent exercise," says Rachel Trotta, a certified personal trainer in Red Bank, New Jersey. "Shorter bursts of exercise reduce pain symptoms, whereas a longer cardio session may aggravate it."
A short bout of exercise can also improve your mood and alertness. A study published in the journal Stress and Health in 2016 discovered that office workers who boxed for three minutes improved their cognitive performance. Another study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in 2016 discovered that when sedentary adults performed six hourly five-minute "microbouts" of moderate-intensity walking on a treadmill, their self-perceived levels of energy and vigor increased compared to six hours of uninterrupted sitting.
Furthermore, when compared to nonstop sitting, the mini exercise sessions improved their mood, decreased their level of fatigue, and reduced their food cravings at the end of the day.
In terms of improving fitness and conditioning, intermittent exercise has a hidden benefit known as the aftereffect. When you exercise for any amount of time, your heart beats faster, your blood flow and breathing rate increase, and your cellular activity changes, according to David Katz, past president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and author of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Keeps Us Well. "When exertion is stopped, these effects do not immediately return to baseline. There is a slow return to baseline, implying that the effects of exercise on the body continue even after exercise is discontinued."
When you do short bursts of physical activity throughout the day, "each of those sessions has a 'long tail' of residual benefit during the recovery period," says Katz. That is, with intermittent workouts, not only are the effects of exercise triggered more frequently throughout the day, but so are the aftereffects as your body recovers after each one.
The specifics of intermittent workouts
One of the best things about intermittent workouts is that there is no wrong or right way to do them. You could do one or more exercises at a time, using your own body weight or dumbbells, or you could simply go for a short walk or climb stairs. Set a timer for every hour (especially if you work at a desk) or use a real-life event (such as before a meal or after finishing a task) as a prompt to move for three to five minutes. "Break it up however you want, depending on your mood and available time — and do it throughout the day," Holland advises. "The point is that minutes count."