How Short Can a ‘Short Workout’ Really Be?

Research says 10 minutes or less of movement can bring health and fitness benefits. We separate what’s true and too good to be true.

That doesn’t mean they have to forgo the physical and psychological benefits of exercise. In recent years, headlines have touted research on the benefits of a few minutes of physical activity. Not to mention the cottage fitness industry that has risen in response by promising physical transformations in X minutes a day (or less!).

What’s true? What’s too good to be true? Can bursts of activity of only 10 minutes or less really help improve your health and fitness? Even when U.S. government guidelines recommend 2½ to 5 hours of moderate exercise per week?

The research says yes. While you should never expect total-body transformation, workouts of even 10 minutes or less really can improve your health, mental well-being, and fitness – if you approach them right.

Why Short Bursts of Movement Can Help

Since at least 2005, researchers have been trying to pinpoint just how short you can make your exercise sessions and still benefit, says Edward F. Coyle, PhD, a professor and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas.

Part of the equation is intensity. His studies show 10-minute workouts in which people cycle as hard as they can for 4 seconds, then rest for 15 to 30 seconds, improve fitness in young and older adults (and in the latter, also build muscle mass). Other studies have shown that shorter “exercise snacks” – climbing three flights of stairs three times, with 1 to 4 hours in between – improved fitness over 6 weeks.

By turning up the intensity, Coyle says, these interval sessions temporarily deprive your muscles of both fuel and the oxygen they need to make more fuel, just as longer workouts do. In response, your blood volume increases, your heart pumps more with each beat, and your muscle cells develop more mitochondria (tiny energy-producing factories).