How Much Exercise Do You Really Need?

Last Editorial Review: 7/16/2008

Even a little exercise may bring you big health benefits.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

You say you don't have time to exercise? You're hardly alone. For many people, lack of time is the single biggest obstacle to fitness. But, experts say, you may be overestimating how much exercise you really need to get at one time. Instead of investing an hour at the gym, what if you could get fitter with 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there through your day?

There's building evidence that short but frequent bouts of exercise can yield plenty of health benefits. Consider the following fitness findings:

  • A study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2006 showed that short walks after dinner were more effective than long exercise sessions in reducing the amount of fat and triglyceride levels in the bloodstream after a hearty meal.
  • Research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed that short bouts of exercise helped lower blood pressure as well as shave inches off the hips and waistline.
  • In a study published in Preventive Medicine in 2006, researchers found that multiple workout sessions as short as 6 minutes apiece could help sedentary adults reach fitness goals similar to those achieved by working out for 30 minutes at a time.
  • In a finding published in the journal Psychopharmacology, doctors found that short bursts of exercise could help reduce the craving for cigarettes and help people quit smoking.

"There is no question that short amounts of exercise can help you get fit, help you stay fit, and help you maintain your health," says personal fitness coach Susie Shina, author ofSixty Second Circuits. "You can stay fit in increments as short as 4 and 5 minutes at a time."

The best part about that is that everyone can find 5 minutes a few times a day, says Shina, owner of a mobile personal training center called Fitness 180.

"Some of these exercises can fit into a 5-minute time period at work, at your desk, waiting on line in the grocery store, even driving in your car," says Shina. "It's not an overwhelming task, and the benefits can be enormous."

Strength and conditioning coach Jim Massaro agrees.

"This is the way I personally work out -- and it's how I train others," says Massaro, founder of the Advanced Personal Training Center in Nyack, N.Y. "It works for beginners and, by increasing the intensity of what you do in those short increments, it can also work for advanced fitness training."

That said, some fitness experts warn that short workouts can have a downside.

"The bad part about short workouts is that they send the message that you can skimp on your health -- that less is more, that you don't have to invest in yourself to be healthy -- and that's the wrong message," says Mike Ryan, a personal trainer and member of the Gold's Gym Fitness Board.

While Ryan says brief bouts of exercise are a good way to get into the fitness mindset, he believes the eventual goal should be to do longer workouts. "Whatever you think you can accomplish with short workouts, you can accomplish that much more with longer workouts," he says.

Exercise: How Much Is the Bare Minimum?

While incorporating more exercise into our lives is a worthwhile goal, for many of us, just getting up off the couch is a big step toward better health.

So how much exercise do you really need? Most of the studies show that 5 minutes of continuous movement repeated during the day is about the bare minimum to have any effect, and fitness experts believe 10 minutes is more realistic.

"If 3 minutes is all you can do, if 2 minutes is all you can do, it's all better than nothing -- but you should be working up to a goal of at least 5 continuous minutes, and 10 is even better," says Shina.

It's important to make the most of those few minutes, she says. "You should come away from your 2 minutes or your 5 minutes or your 10 minutes of exercise feeling as if you have accomplished something," she says. "There is a certain amount of pushing your body that has to take place, even if it's just for 5 minutes."

And how often do you need to do these 5- to 10-minute bursts of activity?

According to the American College of Cardiology and the American College of Sports Medicine, good health really comes with 30 minutes of activity, at least 3-5 times a week. If you do the math, that means you'll need to fit in six daily sessions of 5 minutes apiece, or three daily bouts of 10 minutes apiece.

"It takes about 5-7 minutes to begin to feel the endorphin rush that comes from exercise, so most people find the 10-minute workout three times a day may actually be more pleasurable than the 5 minutes six times a day," says Shina.

What Types of Exercise Work Best?

Experts say that while almost any fitness activity you enjoy doing is good, if you want to get the most from your 10 minutes of training, choose activities that move several large muscle groups at once.

"Using exercises that engage more than one body part at a time will guarantee getting the biggest bang for the exercise buck," says Shina.

Her clients' favorites include simple movements, such as standing up super-straight, with shoulders rolled back, abdominals tight, and chin up. "The trick is to set a timer for 5 minutes and hold that posture," says Shina.

Shina says your quickie fitness routines can include functional movements such as repeatedly standing up and sitting down in a chair, bending down and picking objects up off the floor, or putting something on a high shelf, taking it down, and putting it back up again, until your five minutes are up. (Think cleaning your closet every day for 5 minutes!)

"You can actually do 60 seconds on each of these movements, and then repeat them -- I call it '60-second circuits' -- and it works great because you're only doing it for a minute, and everybody can do something for just a minute," says Shina.


Walking can maintain your body weight and lower many health risks. True or false? See Answer

If you don't mix up your exercises during a single session, vary them from session to session, Massaro suggests.

"Once your body gets used to doing something, you don't get as many benefits from doing it. So either you have to increase the time or intensity or keep changing up the movements to keep your body guessing," he says.

Among Massaro's favorite quickie exercises are basic jumping jacks and squat thrusts, along with walking -- but with a twist.

"To make it into a challenge, try walking in a zigzag pattern, or even walking backwards. It looks a little weird but it definitely challenges your muscles more," he says.

If you are going to do a short workout, Ryan says, make it as intense as you can to get some cardio benefits.

"You need to put some kind of intensity behind whatever activity you're doing if you really want to continue to gain benefits from these short bursts of activity," he says.

So, if you're walking, speed it up. If you're bending and reaching, challenge yourself to do more repetitions in the same time frame.

Getting Motivated to Exercise

While it might seem as if doing just a little exercise won't require much motivation, experts say that isn't so. Because the sessions are so short, it's easy to put them off, or even blow them off, without guilt.

"If you miss an hour of working out with a personal trainer or an hour at the gym, there's a certain amount of guilt attached that can motivate you not to skip out. But when you can skip 5 minutes, of exercise on your own, it doesn't seem like such a big deal. … So unless you stay motivated, it's easy to get sidetracked away from your goals," says Shina.

To stay focused, Massaro says, keep your eye on the prize: how good you'll feel and how much healthier you will be if you stick with your exercise program.

"Don't think about what you have to do, think about what you will get if you do it. Namely, you'll feel better, you'll look better, your health will be better," he says.

If you still need more motivation, pick an exercise buddy and set up a competition, Shina suggests. "First, each of you buys a gift card to a favorite store. Then, each of you must write down all your fitness activities -- when you did them and for how long. And at the end of the week, compare notes. Whoever did the most for the longest gets to have both gift cards."

Ryan says you can also stay motivated by competing with yourself. "Staring out with short bouts of exercise is a good way to establish the fitness mind-set, but you should continually challenge yourself by making your end goal the ability to work out for 30 minutes at a time, three times a week. That can be a very motivating challenge," he says.

Published June 17, 2008.

Susie Shina, author, Sixty Second Circuits; trainer; owner, Fitness 180, Canton, Ga.
Jim Massaro, founder, Advanced Body Personal Athletic Training Center, Nyack, N.Y.
Mike Ryan, personal trainer, Gold's Gym Fitness Institute, California.
Schmidt , W., Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2001; vol 20, no 5: pp 494-501.
Jakicic, J., International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, December 1995; vol 19: pp 893-901.
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise; vol 37, no 5: pp 832-837.
Daniel, J., Psychopharmacology, July 2004; vol 174, no 3: pp 320-326.
McFarlane, D, Preventive Medicine, October 2006; vol 43, issue 4: pp 332-336.
American College of Sports Medicine web site: "Physical Activity and Public Health Guidelines."
WebMD Medical News: "Brief Workouts Beat Long Sessions."

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