PSA: Short Workouts for the Win

If you made ambitious fitness resolutions this year, they have probably fallen apart by now.  If so, this message is for you:

Try small workouts instead.

By “small” or “short” what I mean is an amount of exercise that seems hopelessly ineffective, but that you can actually manage to do.

When I was racing, “short” was a thirty-minute sprint on the bike.  When I was so sick I couldn’t walk an 1/8th of a mile, “short” was ten sit-ups, then lay on the floor and recover for five minutes, then do ten more.  Your “short” is someone else’s “long,” and your “big” is someone else’s “small.”  The key here is that if you are not succeeding at what you think you should be accomplishing, try scaling back instead of giving up.

Are short workouts beneficial?

Yes!  At the extreme end of the spectrum, here’s a study that found that breaking up a long day by just 1 minute and 40 seconds of exercise every hour results in lower plasma glucose and insulin than sitting around with no exercise break.  Even if you are ill to the point that you can do almost nothing, you’re still better off getting micro-bouts of exercise than doing nothing at all.  (And in fact, you’re better off than if you workout for thirty minutes then sit all day, the study found.)

If you can exercise more, have at it. But if you can’t seem to pull that off, trying doing something instead of doing nothing.

10 Reasons Short Workouts Succeed

The main reason I recommend short walks or other exercise is that it works.  That other thing you aren’t doing isn’t working.  This is a thing you can do.

#1 You can slip a short workout into a tight schedule.  The boss probably won’t let you spend 30 minutes mid-morning at the gym, but might be fine with five minutes walking around the building while other people are lounging at the coffee machine.  The spouse might not be ready to watch the kids for an hour at the end of a long day while you go off to do a super-workout, but probably can manage fifteen minutes while you sneak out and run sprints.  The baby will be hungry and angry after forty-five minutes in the stroller, but might put up with ten minutes.  You might have children at the in-between age when they can’t be left alone for long periods, but can safely occupy themselves while you jog around the block.

#2 Short workouts are easier on the wardrobe.  Not every workout can be completed in any clothing at all, but you can do push-ups while wearing business-casual, or go out for a quick walk in clothes you wouldn’t wear for a 5k.

#3 Short workouts are more weather-resistant. If it’s extremely hot, cold, windy, or wet, your body can tolerate short exposure with much less preparation and stress than long exposure.  If it’s snowy, a short trudge through the snow is realistic, a long hike through the snow is exhausting.

#4 Short workouts are easier to orchestrate and harder to miss.  You don’t need a lot of space or a gym to do some quick calisthenics.  You might not have time to go out for a three-hour bike ride, but you can ride your bike to the store for groceries.  You might not have immediate access to a good place to go for a forty-minute walk, whereas if you’re just getting out for five or ten minutes, you could do laps around the block, down to the corner store and back, around the parking lot, around the building — lots of options.  Likewise, if you get to the end of the day and still haven’t exercised like you hoped, you probably can’t cause an extra hour to be added to your day, but you could squeeze in a ten minute walk or a stack of push-ups and sit-ups.

#5 You can always go longer.  If you think the toddler’s going to mutiny after ten minutes but she’s still happy as a clam, you can keep on strolling.  If you thought you’d be exhausted after just your short circuit because you’re a weakling that way, but actually you feel great, you can add on more time.

#6 You can test the waters. Sometimes you feel sluggish because you’re getting sick and need to rest, and other times you feel sluggish because you need to get up and move around and clear your head.  If you go out for a short walk and it makes you feel better, you can keep on going or else make a note to do a more vigorous workout later in the day.  If you go out for what would normally be a refreshing short walk and instead you feel like you’re made of lead, you know you really should take a rest day.

#7 Short workouts keep you fit for bigger, better days.  If you have a sport you like to practice on weekends or vacations or with the team once a week, fitting in small workouts during your “off” days maintains a level of fitness for your sport that can help prevent injuries and improve your performance.  If you are currently dealing with a health or personal situation that prevents you from exercising the way you’d like to, small workouts now provide a base for safely ramping up to bigger things when the time finally comes.  If your life is always erratic, working out in small ways when opportunities are scarce allows you to take the most advantage of the odd spurt when you can do more.

#8 Short workouts work well with injuries.  You might not be able to put miles and miles on your bad knee, but maybe you could still do a lap or two — some walking is better for bone density and posture and heart health than no walking.  You might not be sure how to exercise for an hour without aggravating your back, your shoulder, and your spider bite, but you might be able to think up ten minutes worth of exercises that don’t make anything worse.

#9 Short workouts every day mean fewer days with no exercise.  Let’s say you pencil in two big workouts a week.  If you blow those days, they’re gone.  You might not have two other days when you can set aside that much time.  If your plan, in contrast, is several short workouts each day, if you don’t make your full goal for the day, you might still make half your goal.  If yesterday was a bust because you had that horrid cold that’s going around and also you were trapped in the cellar waiting out a tornado, today you can still get something done because you aren’t scheduling all-or-nothing exercise days.

#10 Short workouts don’t sabotage bigger workouts.  If your normal routine includes long, intense physical exercise, you aren’t going to blow yourself out by taking a quick walk around the block.  If you ride your bike three miles to work because you think you’re going to have to stay late and not be able to go on a real ride, and then the client reschedules and thus you can get your big ride in, those three miles aren’t going to prevent you from riding the other forty.  50 sit-ups this morning aren’t going to prevent you from finishing your whole CrossFit routine this evening, if it turns out you can get to the gym after all.

If you’re getting a lot of exercise, keep on doing that.  But if you are getting zero exercise, try aiming for an amount you can definitely accomplish.  You can always add more.

File:Promenade plantée, Paris August 2009 (20).jpg

Photo by Jean-Louis Zimmermann from Moulins, FRANCE (coulée verte (PARIS, FR75)) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons