Daily life seems to be getting busier and more crowded, yet as individuals we are less active than we’ve ever been. And to relax at night, many of us sit down for an hour or two and binge our latest entertainment fix. We know movement is necessary for health from blood flow to cognition, yet there is always another email to read, or a new episode to catch up on. So naturally we all want to know: what is the minimum effective dose of exercise that will get us the results we want while fitting into our day? Enter the micro-workout.
There are several iterations of the micro-workout, but they all promise big results in bite-sized time. The secret? High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This kind of training is said burn calories not only during the exercise, but for up to 24 hours afterward, in something called the EPOC effect (Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). A study at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada said a few minutes of HIIT produced molecular changes in muscle equivalent to those seen in hours of running or cycling.
But there are requirements to trigger that result. First, the intensity needs to be hard. Not the “can carry on a conversation” level of light jogging. Think more the heart-in-your-throat, being-chased-by-a-bear level of intensity. You should be nearly at your maximum capacity. The other requirement of HIIT is also its saving grace: structured rest periods. Always consider your fitness before trying something this challenging, either with a stress test, consulting a trainer, or by working up slowly.
THE ORIGINAL: 4 MINUTES X 4 ROUNDS
HIIT hit the mainstream thanks to Dr. Izumi Tabata. Tabata workouts are not for everyone. Originally created in the early-90s as efficient training for Olympic speed skaters, they follow a cycle of 20 seconds full-tilt/10 seconds rest for four minutes. Four rounds with a minute’s rest between each round totals 20 minutes. High knees, jumping jacks, a stationary bike are all great candidates for a Tabata workout. Precision timing is key, however – a treadmill or other machines that “ramps up” after stopping will not do the trick. If you want to try it, start with a single round and work up from there.
A more accessible version of HIIT is the New York Times’ popular Seven-Minute Workout that debuted seven years ago. The program was designed by exercise physiologist Chris Jordan and originally printed in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness journal.
If you missed the original article, there are apps and YouTube sequences replicating it readily available. The Times has also added a spin-off: the “Advanced Seven-Minute Workout.” Its strength lies in choosing exercises working large muscle groups for high-impact results in the time it takes to make your morning coffee.
Consisting of 12 bodyweight movements, mainly compound calisthenics like pushups and squats, you run through each for thirty seconds with 10 second rests in between, but then it’s done. It alternates upper and lower muscle groups. There is one aerobic higher-impact move – a jumping jack – but you can modify the impact by stepping rather than jumping. However, it’s meant to be done at an intensity level of 8 on a scale of 1-10, so it should be challenging.
Remember McMaster University? In 2017 McMaster kinesiologist Martin Gibala delivered the shortest workout of all: three rounds of 20 seconds of “all-out” pedaling on stationary bike – followed by two minutes at a leisurely pace between rounds. Participants in his 2014 trial performed three sessions a week and reaped strong results in cardio, strength and health markers like blood pressure.
In an interview, Gibala told the New York Times this protocol can be adapted to any level of fitness and used anywhere. He said you don’t need to play chicken with your vO2 max. You simply need to push beyond your comfort zone, whether walking or kickboxing. To learn more, explore his book “The One-Minute Workout,” written with Christopher Shulgan.
Lastly, because even an hour of exercise a day can’t really counteract eight or 10 hours of sitting, consider incorporating “movement snacks” into your day. I first heard about this idea from Katy Bowman (author “Move Your DNA”), who advocates for finding ways to improve functional movement in your daily life. This could be taking the stairs instead of the escalator, parking a block away, or taking breaks every hour or so from your desk to stretch, or do some squats or twists.
As they say, the best exercise program is the one you will stick with – and what could be easier to fit in to your schedule than these adaptable micro-workouts?