Science Says a 10-Minute Exercise ‘Snack’ is Enough
Maybe you were one of those pandemic marathon people, or maybe life still feels so unpredictable or overwhelming that committing to a long workout seems impossible. And while the advent of boutique fitness over the past decade and a half made the 45- or 60-minute workout the norm, a growing body of research is giving people permission to rethink how they approach exercise.
In fact, when the government updated their recommendations for exercise in 2018, they declared that workouts of less than 10 minutes counted toward recommended weekly activity goals. So instead of prioritizing 45- or 60-minute workouts, your goal is that your weekly exercise time adds up to 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or some combination of the two.
“Rather than blow off your workout because you don’t have the time or motivation for a 45- or 60-minute session, know there is good scientific evidence validating the efficacy of short workouts,” says Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University who studies interval training.
How is it possible that exercising for a fraction of the time can deliver the same results as a longer workout? In short, new research has shown that the same things can happen to your body regardless of exercise duration. “Exercise triggers certain metabolic pathways — think of them as fuel gauges being turned on,” explains Gibala. “When you exercise, your energy reserves start to decline, like a fuel gauge ticking down towards ‘empty.’ That triggers the lights on the dashboard to come on, which, in your body, translates to the stimulation of physiological responses: new blood vessels are formed, the heart becomes a stronger pump, and skeletal muscle gets better at being able to utilize oxygen to produce energy.”
“Rather than blow off your workout because you don’t have the time or motivation for a 45- or 60-minute session, know there is good scientific evidence validating the efficacy of short workouts.”
Whereas continuous, moderate-intensity exercise has those fuel gauges going down slowly over time, says Gibala, “what we’re learning is that you can also turn on those metabolic pathways with short, hard bursts of exercise that cause a sudden drop in fuel available.”
While a short workout does need to involve hard work, that intensity doesn’t have to be sustained the whole time (even if the whole time is just a few minutes), according to a 2016 study Gibala oversaw. In the study, two groups started workouts with a two-minute warm-up and finished with a three-minute cooldown. But in between, the first group rode on a stationary bike continuously for 45 minutes at a moderate intensity, while the second did three rounds that involved a 20-second all-out sprint on the bike followed by two minutes of slow recovery pedaling. After 12 weeks of doing these workouts three times a week, the scientists found the same physiological improvements (including increased oxygen uptake efficiency, insulin sensitivity, and mitochondrial function) in both groups — despite the fact that one logged 27 total hours of riding and the other a mere six.
But a short interval workout doesn’t have to be that structured. When sedentary young adults performed exercise “snacks” — vigorously climbing 60 steps of stairs three times a day, leaving one to four hours between climbs for recovery — researchers (including Gibala) found that they not only showed improvements in their cardiorespiratory fitness, but they also were able to generate more power in a cycling test.
The idea of exercise snacking has also been championed by Joe Holder, a performance specialist, health consultant, and founder of the Ocho System. In March, partially in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Holder launched a library of under-20-minute exercise snacks on Instagram. To him, exercise snacks are about reframing your fitness mindset.
“There’s a difference between fitness for performance and fitness for health,” he says. From a health standpoint, fitness can be about controlling blood sugar, improving mental health, or improving your longevity, he explains. Fitness for performance, on the other hand, zeroes in on getting stronger, faster, or fitter. “Exercise snacking is more about elevating your base level of health and keeping up with general movement, so you can perform better when you do want to perform.”
This health-based approach is especially relevant now; Americans spent 77% of their waking hours sitting or being otherwise inactive before a global pandemic, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found, and sedentary behavior has long been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even premature death.
To offset negative health implications (like sitting all day), exercise snacks could be even shorter than what Gibala’s research has found. That study from the Annals of Internal Medicine found that merely getting up at least every half hour could help. Holder recommends standing up and “doing a few sets of high knees or jumping jacks, running up and down a set of stairs, or doing five minutes of stretching or mobility work” to maximize your health potential.
Americans spent 77% of their waking hours sitting or being otherwise inactive before a global pandemic.
If you do want fitness benefits, Holder recommends a minimum 10-minute workout. Here’s what he suggests that looks like: Warm up for two to three minutes (jog in place, do some dynamic exercises like knee hugs, leg swings, or side lunges with rotations); then do an upper body exercise, lower body exercise, cardio exercise, and core exercise for 30 seconds each; take a quick break after a set, then repeat that set of four exercises four times; cooldown for two minutes, and get back to your day.
The key, if you’re looking to reap those time-efficient benefits Gibala’s cycling study highlighted, is to go all-out for at least one minute within those 10 minutes. What qualifies as “intense” will be different for everyone, Gibala says. “In general, high-intensity exercise involves efforts that exceed 80% of your maximum heart rate,” he explains: You should be breathing heavily, and unable to maintain a conversation.
Stacking your snacks can lead to even more of a payoff, and may be more accessible in these WFH times. Starting your day with a 10-minute arm workout, then doing a 20-minute run at lunch, and wrapping up with a 15-minute lower-body workout at night helps you get closer to your minimum physical activity requirements without sucking up too much of your time at once.
But, just to clarify here, especially if you have specific fitness goals, these short workouts can’t replace all longer workouts. Think about it this way: If you were training for a marathon, you wouldn’t replace all your runs with sprints. You wouldn’t be able to go the distance. Fitness, like most things, requires a multifaceted approach, says Holder. “Two times a week, you should do something endurance-based to improve your capacity for exercise. Once a week, you should do something strength-based. Then, you can plug your shorter workouts in when you don’t have more time,” he explains. “You’ve now set up a system where you’ve got a high/low approach in terms of time and intensity.”
Because, at the end of the day — especially given the current state of the world — “the most important thing for most individuals is not the workout itself, it’s how much they move,” says Gibala. “Keep the big picture in mind: However you can accumulate your ideally 150 minutes a week, it all counts.”