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 more.com/painbuster

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

First Published December 7, 2011

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