Why Shorter Workouts Can Be Better Workouts

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Time at a premium? Don't sweat it

Just a few mornings ago, rather than my usual waking to the sound of my alarm clock followed by a thought or two about how I wasn't really ready to wake up yet (which contained more than one expletive), I woke up instead to the lovely sound of a chirping bird outside my window. What followed was a profound sense of hope and inner peace. Spring is near! And just the same evening, when I went to take my dog out for her usual post-afternoon stroll, I had to come back inside to grab my sunglasses. Those cold and dark days of December are becoming more and more distant. And I know I shouldn't complain, since this winter has been unusually mild, but to me, winter is still … winter.

So what does this all have to do with shorter workouts?

I don't know about you, but something happens to me as winter draws to a close and spring becomes something I can hear and smell. I get more productive. And busy. Like a sleeping animal out of hibernation, my energy, along with my mood, revs up. I long to clean out closets, organize my files, raid and rid my kitchen cabinets and cosmetics bin of foods and makeup with uncertain expiration dates and of dubious appearance.

What inevitably follows is less time to fit in a good workout. As a result, those recommendations that we must get at least 30 minutes of continuous, moderate-intensity exercise five times a week for overall health begin to weigh heavily on my mind, becoming—rather than an incentive—an unrealistic goal.

I'm sure glad a group of scientists are onto this. What they've found is encouraging. Intervals—repeated short bursts of vigorous activity intermingled with rest periods—not only saves time, but also can significantly improve your health and fitness levels.

The concept of interval training has been around for years, and I have dug it out of my arsenal from time to time (translation: when I remember that it exists). Many athletes routinely use it as part of their exercise regimen. But now I'm considering using it more since reading about the newest study in The New York Times' Well blog.

Writer Gretchen Reynolds discusses a recent study in which researchers at McMaster University in Ontario tested two groups: one was sedentary but generally healthy middle-aged men and women; the other was people middle-aged and older who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. When their maximum heart rate and peak power output were tested on a stationary bicycle, the results were mediocre at best, for both groups.

The researchers formulated a routine where the two groups would only exercise using interval training. They did one minute of strenuous, all-out effort followed by one minute of easy recovery over a 20-minute period. The one-minute phases were repeated 10 times during this period.

Reynolds writes:
The results, published in a recent review … were especially remarkable in the cardiac patients. They showed "significant improvements" in the functioning of their blood vessels and heart, said Maureen MacDonald, an associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster who is leading the ongoing experiment.

Other benefits associated with interval training included better blood sugar regulation, improved speed and endurance and the creation of more cellular proteins involved in energy production and oxygen. And I'll add my own: more enthusiasm, since it meant less time exercising.

On the other hand, the article pointed out that if you are able to do longer workouts, you should go ahead and indulge—these also have impressive and positive benefits to your health and fitness levels.

As for me, I think I'll employ both. For those instances where I have the time—like during my visit to Red Mountain Resort in Utah a few weeks back, where I had the luxury of full days spread before me—I'll gladly take that three-hour hike or one-hour spin class or Zumba or any other of their terrific exercise options. Every part of my body benefited from those scenic, sometimes scary-but-always-invigorating mountain climbs. My muscles and heart felt stronger than the day before, and my sense of accomplishment was unparalleled.

But for those days when I'm frazzled and busy and berating myself for not having the time to exercise, I can just about guarantee that I'll be able to carve out 20 measly minutes to do something good for my health.

How about you?

You might also want to read:
No More Excuses! Five Easy Ways to Find the Motivation to Exercise
Stop the Exercise Guilt and Start Moving

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