Shorter, More Intense Workouts May Be Healthier

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A short, intense exercise session may be healthier than a longer, more moderate session that burns the same number of calories, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that the people who engaged in the most vigorous exercise reduced their risk of developing metabolic syndrome by two-thirds, compared with those who did no vigorous exercise, even when the total amount of calories per pound of body weight the participants burned while exercising was the same. Vigorous exercise includes activities such as running and jumping rope; moderate exercise might consist of walking or going for a leisurely bike ride.  

People with metabolic syndrome may have excess weight around the waist, difficulty controlling blood sugar levels, high blood pressure and low levels of "good" cholesterol. Having the condition puts people at heightened risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. 

The research showed an association, not a cause-and-effect link, and more work is needed to confirm the results.

Still, the findings suggest that vigorous physical activity should be emphasized as a component of public health guidelines regarding exercise, the researchers from Queen's University in Ontario wrote in their conclusion.

Current guidelines, including those from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, based on the idea that vigorous exercise burns about twice as many calories per minute as moderate exercise, according to the study.

But such recommendations imply that there are few health benefits of exercising vigorously, except that your workout may take less time, according to the researchers.

In the study, the researchers used data collected from 1,841 adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is an ongoing study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For seven days, participants wore an accelerometer on their right hip during their waking hours. The devices provided data on participants' movements and exercise intensity.

In all, about a third of the participants had metabolic syndrome.

The researchers found that the more active people were in general, the lower their risk of having metabolic syndrome.

But vigorous exercise seemed to be more beneficial than moderate exercise. Those who did 150 minutes of moderate exercise were about 2.4 times more likely to develop metabolic syndrome than those who did 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise weekly, according to the study.  

The researchers took into account other factors that could affect the results, such as participants' sex, ethnicity, smoking and drinking.

The researchers noted that the general public has an "apparent distaste" for doing intense exercise. In the study, 70 percent of participants did no intense exercise whatsoever, and even among those who followed current exercise guidelines, fewer than 20 percent met the guideline by exercising intensely.

The study was limited in that the accelerometer could not be worn in water, so participants who swam may not have their exercise accurately measured. The devices may also not have captured intense exercise requiring little movement, such as stationary biking.

The study was published online March 24 in the International Journal of Epidemiology. 

Pass it on: A shorter, more intense workout may not only save you time, it may be better for your health.

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Karen Rowan
Health Editor
Karen came to LiveScience in 2010, after writing for Discover and Popular Mechanics magazines, and working as a correspondent for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She holds an M.S. degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University, as well as an M.S. in cellular biology from Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a journalist, Karen taught science at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. for eight years.