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Sometimes working out is hard. But the truth is: the thought of working out is often even harder.

Whether it’s time constraints and busy schedules or a fear of feeling out of shape, the mental battle of gearing up for a workout—especially a long one—can be a daunting task.

The good news, however, is that long workouts are far from the end-all-be-all option of the workout world.

In fact, recently, there’s been a downright legion of literature that has come out in support of shorter workouts. Not just because of the age-old saying, “something is better than nothing.” But because even small workouts can have big payoffs.

According to one study from PLOS, even as little as 1-minute of vigorous exercise per day can lead to major health gains over time.

So, if you're short on time or motivation, here's how committing to “snack-sized” workouts throughout the day can make a big difference.

High-Intensity Interval Training

From helping on a cellular level to improving bone strength, HIIT workouts are a great way to help your health. Photo by Meghan Holmes

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, you’ve likely heard of a HIIT workout. But this style of working out is far more than just a buzzword. It’s the real deal.

According to Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster and lead author of the aforementioned PLOS study, “Brief bursts of intense exercise are remarkably effective. Our study shows that an interval-based approach can even be more efficient—you can get health and fitness benefits comparable to the traditional approach, in less time."

The research found that a single minute of intense exercise can produce benefits similar to 45 minutes of continuous, moderate-intensity exercise. A separate 2017 study similarly found that a single minute of exercise each day is linked to better bone health in women—especially if it involves impact, like jumping while doing air squats.

And shorter high-intensity workouts can also help on a cellular level. According to a 2018 study, researchers found that high-intensity workouts, even for mere minutes, can impact the body’s mitochondria to the same degree as much longer endurance activities. 

This is helpful because mitochondria are the “powerhouses of the cell.” They produce energy, and our muscle tissues are loaded with them. 

So, when you work out, even in short bursts, the mitochondria in your cells become more efficient at producing energy, which in turn gives you more energy. It’s the ultimate intercellular feedback loop!

Short Workouts Benefit the Brain

Short bursts of exercise can majorly boost the brain. Photo by Greg Resenke

In a 2017 study about the mental benefits associated with short bursts of exercise, Kinesiology Prof. Matthew Heath learned that exercise is the ultimate brainfood.

"Some people can't commit to a long-term exercise regime because of time or physical capacity," says Heath. "But people who cycle or walk briskly for a short duration, even once, can find immediate benefits.

I always tell my students before they write a test or an exam or go into an interview or do anything cognitively demanding, they should get some exercise first. Our study shows the brain's networks like it. They perform better."

A similar study in 2019 found that exercise lights up different parts of the brain, even when done in small doses.

Exercise Snacking

Think of these tiny bite-sized chunks of exercise as "exercise snacking" rather than eating a full meal. In fact, the benefits of these exercise snacks are similar to eating healthy snacks throughout the day when it comes to stabilizing blood sugar.

"Dosing these small amounts of high intensity exercise before meals—particularly breakfast and dinner–may be a more time-efficient way to get exercise into people's day, rather than devoting a large chunk of the day," says Marie Francois, a researcher from New Zealand, about a study she conducted in 2014.

"Brief, intense interval exercise bouts undertaken immediately before breakfast, lunch and dinner had a greater impact on post-meal—and subsequent 24 hour glucose concentrations—than did a single bout of moderate, continuous exercise undertaken before an evening meal."

Finding What Works For You

Stair climbing is one of the most easy-access ways to squeeze in a short workout. Photo by Bruno Nascimento

If the thought of short yet vigorous workouts sounds just as daunting as a long workout, worry not. There’s always a middle-ground option.

As Professor Gibala says, “Interval training doesn’t have to be 'all out' in order to be effective. Doing 10 one-minute sprints on a standard stationary bike with about one minute of rest in between, three times a week, works as well in improving muscle as many hours of conventional long-term biking less strenuously."

Even one minute of moderate stair climbing can lead to big gains over time. "Stair climbing is a form of exercise anyone can do in their own home, after work or during the lunch hour," says Gibala. "This research takes interval training out of the lab and makes it accessible to everyone."

And the stairs test is an easy way to check your heart health, too. According to Dr. Jesús Peteiro, a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña, "If it takes you more than one-and-a-half minutes to ascend four flights of stairs, your health might be suboptimal, and it would be a good idea to consult a doctor.

Have A Minute?

Try one of these easy activities to get you started. No equipment or active clothing is required.

  • Walk briskly up 1-2 flights of steps (or use a stopwatch and check your time for 4 flights of stairs).
  • Do 10 inclined pushups against a wall or your desk.
  • Do 15 air squats.
  • Park farther away from your destination and speed walk or jog to your destination.
  • Do 20 calf raises balancing on the edge of a curb or step (hold the stair railing for balance support if needed).
  • Do 25 jumping jacks.
  • Do 15 weighted squats the next time you're holding a bag of groceries, carrying a load of laundry, picking up your cat or dog, or moving your kid's toys from one room to another.

However you start to incorporate more snack-size workouts into your everyday routine, this much is clear: your body (and your brain!) will thank you.

Written by Molly Hurford for Matcha in partnership with OrthoCarolina.


December 21, 2021

Good article. Will star doing more exercise snacking..
- Richard Bohart