The science has spoken: you do not need to exercise for hours on end in order to improve all aspects of your health, nor to boost your life expectancy. In fact, the secret to feeling fit, healthy, and mentally buoyant actually lies in how consistently you move. Even the most die-hard fitness experts agree that getting your heart pumping, however you choose to do it, is the ticket to improving your health—and you don’t need to commit to hour-long studio classes to do that.
“The great part about exercise (particularly low-intensity exercise, such as walking, stair climbing, steady-state cycling) is that it all counts, and it’s also cumulative,” agrees trainer-to-the-stars Luke Worthington. “When it comes to low-intensity exercise, doing an hour in one go is really not much different to doing two [sessions] of 20 minutes or 12 [sessions] of five minutes. It’s as simple as making the decision to move purposefully each day. That includes taking the stairs instead of the lift, getting off the bus a stop earlier, or even walking around the supermarket instead of ordering online. It all counts!”
So, how short is short? And how can those of us who are time-poor (or exercise-averse) reap the benefits? Below, some of the science to illustrate how exercise snacks of 10 minutes or less can make all the difference.
The case for the micro workout
Turns out that even a four-second burst of intense exercise can make us fitter. A small 2021 study saw a group of young, healthy individuals in their twenties cycle at maximum effort for four seconds, then rest for around 15 to 30 seconds, 30 times, thrice weekly—amounting to two minutes of intense exercise three times a week, or six minutes total per week. Findings showed improved cardio and anaerobic power (meaning they could generate more power with less oxygen), and while it’s important to note the participants were already young and fit, the research nonetheless suggests that even as little as two minutes of really intense HIIT exercise can pay dividends.
Everyday movement counts
A study published in December 2022 by Nature Medicine (which surveyed the fitness tracking records of over 25,000 people with an average age of 60, who didn’t regularly exercise), found that small bursts of movement throughout the day—be that two minutes of fast walking or quickly climbing the stairs—showed a 50 percent decrease in death from cardiovascular problems and a further 40 percent decrease in the risk of dying from cancer, compared to those who had no spurts of movement at all. Put simply, even the smallest amounts of exercise can increase our life expectancy—so next time you’re faced with the choice of “stairs or elevator?” always choose the former.
Have you heard of Tabata? A favorite in fitness circles, it’s a type of HIIT workout that takes just four minutes. The idea—the brainchild of Dr. Tabata in 1996—is to do 20 seconds of work at maximum effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest. Sample exercises might include squat jumps, push-ups, high knees, or mountain climbers (or a mix, alternated). Hard work, but over before you know it, studies have shown even four-minute bursts can help lower the risk of premature death.
“There is a large body of research correlating higher step count with reduced ‘all cause’ mortality,” says Worthington. “What this means is that higher step count is not only linked with reduced death from cardiovascular disease and obesity-related conditions, but other causes less directly associated with exercise too, such as cancer and even suicide.” He suggests aiming to walk between 7,500 and 11,000 steps each day to improve your health—and even if you don’t reach these numbers, 500 steps is better than none at all. “The great thing about step count is that it’s cumulative—not only across the day but the week, too,” he points out.
Make it regular
While you don’t have to toil over the dumbbells to make a difference to your health, all research points to the fact that consistency is key. Move a little each day and make a promise to yourself to prioritize it—there is always time for a quick walk.
Still not convinced?
Consider the powerful effect that exercise, however low-intensity, has on your mood as well as your body. “The great thing about exercise is that it’s a tonic that works for everyone,” says Worthington. “We all have access to this great medicine that we can take anywhere, at any time, and make a measurable positive change to both our physiology and our psychology.”