How Short Can a ‘Short Workout’ Really Be?

The research says yes. While you should never expect total-body transformation, workouts of even 10 minutes or less really can improve your health, mental well-being, and fitness – if you approach them right…, How Short Can a ‘Short Workout’ Really Be? Cindy Kuzma, Apr 2022

Since at least 2005, researchers have been trying to pinpoint just how short you can make your exercise sessions and still benefit, says Edward F. Coyle, PhD, a professor and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas.

Part of the equation is intensity. His studies show 10-minute workouts in which people cycle as hard as they can for 4 seconds, then rest for 15 to 30 seconds, improve fitness in young and older adults (and in the latter, also build muscle mass). Other studies have shown that shorter “exercise snacks” – climbing three flights of stairs three times, with 1 to 4 hours in between – improved fitness over 6 weeks.

By turning up the intensity, Coyle says, these interval sessions temporarily deprive your muscles of both fuel and the oxygen they need to make more fuel, just as longer workouts do. In response, your blood volume increases, your heart pumps more with each beat, and your muscle cells develop more mitochondria (tiny energy-producing factories).

To reap the many benefits of physical activity – from lower blood pressure to better sleep to a longer life – health experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity weekly. Moderate means your heart’s beating faster, but you can still speak.

Any amount of movement “counts” toward the total. Four minutes here, 8 minutes there, another 5 minutes again later … it all adds up.

Short sessions of physical activity also boost brain function, says Basso, a neuroscientist and dancer. Moving your body increases blood flow to the brain and changes levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. It also stimulates the release of growth factors that, over time, help sprout new brain cells.