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Is One Minute of Exercise as Effective as 45 Minutes?

Tara Parker-Pope, editor of the Well section of the New York Times, sent an email out today to her subscribers listing the 10 most popular articles of this past year.

While every article looked quite interesting, the one that caught my eye was “1 Minute of All-Out Exercise May Have Benefits of 45 Minutes of Moderate Exertion“, by Gretchen Reynolds.

The article shares the results of a research study at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The study began by recruiting 25 out-of-shape young men and measuring their current aerobic fitness and, as a marker of general health, their body’s ability to use insulin properly to regulate blood sugar levels. The scientists also biopsied the men’s muscles to examine how well their muscles functioned at a cellular level.

The men were then divided into three groups:

  • Group 1: the control group, was asked to change nothing about their current, virtually nonexistent exercise routines
  • Group 2: exercised at a moderate pace on a stationary bicycle at the lab for 45 minutes, with a two-minute warm-up and three-minute cool down
  • Group 3: warmed up for two minutes on stationary bicycles, then pedaled as hard as possible for 20 seconds; rode at a very slow pace for two minutes, sprinted all-out again for 20 seconds; recovered with slow riding for another two minutes; pedaled all-out for a final 20 seconds; then cooled down for three minutes. The entire workout lasted 10 minutes, with only one minute of that time being strenuous.

Groups 2 and 3 completed three sessions each week for 12 weeks.

When the scientists retested the men’s aerobic fitness, muscles and blood-sugar control now, they found that the exercisers showed virtually identical gains, whether they had completed the long endurance workouts or the short, grueling intervals. In both groups, endurance had increased by nearly 20 percent, insulin resistance likewise had improved significantly, and there were significant increases in the number and function of certain microscopic structures in the men’s muscles that are related to energy production and oxygen consumption.

The conclusion was that neither approach to exercise was, however, superior to the other, except that one was shorter — much, much shorter.

So if the results are the same, should you save time by just doing the shorter, interval-based workouts?

Here’s what Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University who oversaw the new study, has to say:

“If you are an elite athlete, then obviously incorporating both endurance and interval training into an overall program maximizes performance. But if you are someone, like me, who just wants to boost health and fitness and you don’t have 45 minutes or an hour to work out, our data show that you can get big benefits from even a single minute of intense exercise.”

I’m not sure I would interpret his quote as an endorsement of one minute of exercise over 45 minutes. He simply states that if you don’t have the time for 45 minutes, then one minute is better. Of course it is; any exercise is better than no exercise.

I have a few concerns with how the results of this study could be misinterpreted, possibly leading to more problems than benefits.

First, if you don’t have time to fit in more than 10 minutes of exercise a day, I’d say your biggest problem is a time management/lifestyle problem. You need to make exercise a priority.

Second, why shouldn’t “ordinary people” train like elite athletes. Perhaps not to their level of intensity or commitment, but at least using the same approaches. If a mix of endurance training and interval training is what works best for elite athletes, then that is what us ordinary folks should be doing as well.

Third, I think that if people read such an article and immediately begin an exercise routine that consists just of interval-based workouts, or if somebody switches to just this type of training, my guess is that there is likely to be more injuries and a higher drop out rate. Intense workouts, by their very nature, put greater stress on the body, potentially leading to more injuries than other, more moderate forms of exercise. Interval workouts are also meant to be challenging in order to get the full benefit from such a workout. If you already dislike exercise, knowing that every workout you do is going to be hard isn’t likely to be motivating to want to keep doing that type of exercise.

To me the answer, as usual, is one of balance. I think a mix of both high-intensity, interval-based workouts along with more moderate, endurance-based workouts are the most effective way to train (and no surprise, that’s how most elite athletes train).

I love the New York Times, and I love that they publish these kind of articles that look at the science behind exercise. However, I don’t like when they use headlines that may be a bit misleading, and don’t offer more of the pros and cons of each type of approach to exercising.

It’s also interesting to read the comments ) there were 389 of them!), that offer, as expected a wide range of opinion on the topic.

If I were to offer exercise advice, it would be the following:

  • commit to making exercise a priority in your daily schedule
  • start off easy, but be consistent
  • gradually increase the time and/or intensity of your workouts
  • add variety to your workouts; this could be done by adding in one or two high-intensity interval workouts per week or by mixing in different forms of exercise – running, walking, biking, rowing swimming, etc.
  • be sure to add in some strength training and some flexibility work as well to your weekly routine; the strength training can perhaps take the place of one of your cardio workouts, or be combined with a cardio workout
  • find what works for you, but again, to me the key is to be consistent; the drip, drip, drip of doing something every day pays benefits over the long-term

So try not to fall for the hype of getting something (health) for almost nothing (10 minutes of exercise).

As we all know, life doesn’t work that way…

 

 

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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