Too Busy to Exercise? Try These 6 Quick-Fix Workouts

New research shows you can protect your heart, feel less pain, have better sex or add years to your life by working out fewer than 30 minutes a day. Really!

By Melinda Dodd
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Photograph: Leon Steele

The year will soon be new, but the problem is definitely old: You want to get healthier in 2012, but that means increasing the amount of time you exercise—ideally, fitting at least the standard workout prescription (30 minutes a day, five days a week) into your crazy schedule. Turns out you don't have to. A number of new studies show that you can significantly upgrade your health by working out for less time than is typically recommended. “Experts used to think you had to do a minimum intensity or volume of exercise to get health benefits or improve your fitness, but that may not always be true,” says Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, associate professor of movement sciences at Columbia University. For instance, in a recent Taiwanese study, researchers found that doing just 15 minutes of daily physical activity cuts your risk of dying over the next eight years by 14 percent and could help you live three additional years. 

If exercise time is hard to find, here's what you can accomplish in a few spare moments. 

Time | 12 minutes
What | Any moderate-intensity cardio exercise (for example, climbing stairs)
Frequency | Five days a week
Result | Lowers risk of stroke and heart attack by 27 percent 

You already know that aerobic activity reduces “bad” cholesterol, raises “good” cholesterol, moderates blood pressure and improves circulation. But the big surprise is how little exercise it takes for you to attain cardiovascular benefits. In a review of two decades of data on 27,055 female health professionals ages 45 to 90, researchers found that doing just an hour of moderate cardio exercise (such as biking) each week decreased a woman's risk for heart disease, stroke, heart attack, coronary bypass operations and death by 27 percent. “A lot of the benefit came through lowered levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, rather than through changes in body mass index,” says the study's lead author, cardiologist Samia Mora, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. You can make the one-hour-per-week prescription more manageable by dividing it into 12-minute sessions you do on each of the five workdays. 

Time | 2 minutes
What | Resistance-band exercise
Frequency | Five days a week
Result | Cuts muscle pain by 37 percent and headaches by 43 percent 

Many women feel a burning and tightness across their necks and shoulders after they've spent hours hunched over a keyboard or steering wheel. Now there's an easy way to find relief, says a new study in the journal Pain. In a 10-week experiment, one set of office-based employees who suffered ongoing upper-body aches performed a routine with resistance bands for two minutes each workday. At the end of the study, the band users experienced 37 percent less neck and shoulder pain than the nonexercising control group. The exercising subjects' headaches, possibly caused by their muscle pain, dropped 43 percent.Why did the strength training work? “Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to your muscles, which makes them feel less achy and tired,” says Lars Andersen, PhD, a senior researcher at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen. For a demo of the resistance-band series used in the study, go to

Time | 20 minutes
What | Any vigorous exercise
Frequency | As needed
Result | Increases blood flow to genitals by about 50 percent 

When you're trying to get in the mood after a long day, consider seeking help from an unlikely source: your gym. Over two decades, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have demonstrated that when women spend 20 minutes on a treadmill or stationary bike, then watch an erotic film, they increase blood flow to their vaginal walls by an average of 50 percent compared with when they just watch the film. The effects of exercise can last up to 30 minutes, making it a boon in the bedroom, where your partner's body (or other sexual stimuli) could work in lieu of the movie. “Exercise may be able to help women who aren't getting lubricated enough or who feel that their genitals aren't sufficiently aroused,” says study author Lisa Dawn Hamilton, PhD, now an assistant psychology professor at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. Working out activates the sympathetic nervous system, sending blood throughout your body; subsequent exposure to arousing stimuli can keep the juices flowing. 

Time | 10 minutes
What | Vigorous running or biking
Frequency | Once a day
Result | Helps ward off obesity and metabolic syndrome 

A study reported last year in Science Translational Medicine looked at the effects that 10 minutes' worth of vigorous running or stationary bicycling had on 21 different metabolites, small molecules that reflect what's going on with various fuel sources in your body. Blood samples from 78 subjects taken after each workout revealed that exercise activates metabolites that play a role in generating energy, increasing insulin sensitivity, preserving muscle, destroying fat and staving off the effects of stress. The researchers say that together such changes may help fend off obesity and metabolic syndrome (a combination of symptoms that increases your risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease). 

Time | 25 minutes
What | Non-weight-bearing exercise
Frequency | As needed
Result | Diminishes physical pain by 28 percent 

Exercise may be one of the easier pain-reducing options for the millions who suffer from lower-back pain, according to a study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development in which eight people with chronic back problems rode stationary bikes for 25 minutes. By the end of the exercise session, the subjects' sensitivity to a painful stimulus had dropped by 28 percent. The researchers hypothesize that working out may “block the release of neurotransmitters that communicate pain, or block the passing of information from one nerve to the next,” says study coauthor Philip S. Clifford, PhD, professor of anesthesiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. 

Time | 15 minutes
What | Any moderate-intensity exercise
Frequency | Three times a week
Result | May help decrease dementia risk by up to 38 percent 

A team from Seattle's Group Health Research Institute studied the workout habits of 1,740 people over age 65. After six years, those who had exercised moderately at least 15 minutes a day (by, say, walking) three times a week were 38 percent less likely to exhibit mental deterioration. “We suspect that exercise helps improve circulation and boosts the health of the blood vessels in the brain, making you better able to withstand stress to the hippocampus, where memory lives,” explains lead study author Eric B. Larson, MD. 

Originally published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of More. 

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First Published Tue, 2011-11-08 13:02

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