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How Short Can You Make Your Workout?

6 quick workouts from easy to hard

By Molly Hurford | October 5, 2018 | Rally Health

Don’t think you have enough time to exercise? Think again.

You may have heard about nine-minute, seven-minute, even one-minute workouts. The latest trend in fitness is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which is all about short bursts of all-out effort, followed by a recovery period. This may allow you to gain the benefits of a regular workout in a fraction of the time. But if all out doesn’t sound like your thing, don’t give up on quick workouts. You just might need to get in a few more of them at a lower intensity.

You’ll probably be glad you did. Even a small amount of activity has been shown to boost happiness and, in turn, productivity, in addition to the obvious physical benefits of lowered risk for chronic diseases and obesity

“There are plenty of studies coming out on the high-intensity interval training method,” says Professor Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham in the UK. ”In our work, we see that it reduces inflammation and was as effective as a 45-minute aerobics class.” And the nice thing about high-intensity training is that you really feel it during, and after, the workouts, even if the workout is only a minute long. 

On the flip side, low-intensity workouts — especially short ones — may not get you fit in a few weeks, but over a year, adding multiple sets of low-intensity workouts throughout the day can provide health benefits, even if you're doing a five-minute walk here, five minutes on some stairs there, and a short, leisurely bike ride to the store. The benefits add up, even if it doesn’t feel like you’re seeing results right away. And because they’re low-intensity exercises, you won’t feel sore or tired afterward, which makes them easy to tack on at any time of day.

According to government guidelines, most of us should be shooting for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous workouts. But they don’t say you have to get them in a single workout session each day. From five minutes or half an hour, here are a few quick workout ideas that can boost your fitness and overall well-being without making you late for dinner. And if you find yourself with a few minutes throughout the day, try to mix and match some of these quick low- and high-intensity exercises.

As always though, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor when you start a new exercise program, especially if you have a chronic condition, or haven’t had regular exercise for a while. That’s especially important for high-intensity training. And consider consulting a trainer to make sure you know the proper technique to avoid injury.

In five minutes

Low Intensity: YogaSpace owner Kathryn Beet says that in five minutes of working out, she’s all about poses that anyone can do — nothing fancy. “I look for the safest postures for beginner yogis, but anyone can get some serious bang for their buck from these simple poses,” she says. She likes putting together a series combining ”hip openers, forward folds, backbends and twists.”

Beet’s favorite flow is easy to follow: Start with a wide-legged forward fold, bending over at the hips. You’ll feel this stretch in your hamstrings, and also a bit in your back and hips. Then, hit the ground and do a few gentle reps of a locust pose: lay on your belly, then lift everything off the floor except for your pelvis. Finish in child’s pose, seated back on your knees and folded forward so your chest and arms are on the ground. While you’re here, open your shoulders and add a twist by threading one arm though the other while resting in that position.

High Intensity: Try five sets of burpees, resting between. Gym owner, pro CrossFit competitor, and Olympic Gold Medalist Anna Tunnicliffe says the burpee is one of the best bang-for-your-buck all body moves — essentially, it’s a pushup where you pop up and do a jumping jack before dropping back down for another pushup. It’s a combination of strength and cardio, as well as coordination, and even doing a few in a row can be exhausting. So, set a timer for five minutes, and start jumping. When you’re exhausted, stop for a few seconds, and get started again when you can. There’s no specific number for how many you need to do to count this as a workout; the goal is to just stay working hard for five minutes, with only quick breaks in between. Aiming for five sets of around 10 burpees per set is a great start, says Tunnicliffe. If burpees are too intense for you, swap them out for plain jumping jacks, or alternate between short rounds of jumping jacks and pushups for a similar effect without the fast transitions.

In 15 minutes

Low Intensity: Simply walking around the block is a great low-intensity workout for 15 minutes. Research has shown that being in nature is nearly essential to human health, and that even 15 minutes of daily exercise can increase your lifespan

High Intensity: Try a series of “20 seconds on, 10 seconds off” intervals, says Tunnicliffe — the  spin class staple is designed to force high intensity, but backing off right before it gets too hard to hold that intense pace. You can pick what kind of cardio to do, with running/walking being the simplest way to do an efficient set. But for those who prefer staying off their feet or simply can’t yet run for 20 seconds, a rowing machine, stationary bike, or elliptical machine can be great as well. Set a stopwatch and push your pace for 20 seconds, then either stop or back off to ultra-easy intensity levels for 10 seconds, and hit it again. Pro tip: A good playlist is extremely helpful in making this time fly by!

In 30 Minutes

Low Intensity: Try a quick solo yoga session. A recent study showed that even a 25-minute session of Hatha yoga daily could improve overall mood as well as cognitive function. There are plenty of great resources for short yoga workouts online, including YogaGlo, which allows users to narrow their yoga preference by time, style, level and instructor, so finding a 30-minute flow with a certified instructor is only a few clicks away.

High Intensity: Check out a CrossFit Workout of the Day (WOD). Tunnicliffe is a huge fan of CrossFit-style high-intensity interval training sessions. The workouts typically include some cardio element like rowing or running, plus a few key strength moves, like deadlifts or pullups — and she says there are plenty of travel-friendly WODs that don’t even require having a set of weights lying around. Side note: What Tunnicliffe loves about CrossFit is that it’s a challenge for everyone — but it’s only as challenging as a person makes it. So go at your own pace, and don’t think about whether you’re going “fast enough,” as long as you feel challenged by the workout. One person's jog is another person's sprint.

Molly Hurford
Rally Health