Bad Medicine

No Excuses: Even 1-Minute Workouts Benefit Health

A man pauses during a workout to check his watch.
Can even a 1-minute workout improve your health? (Image credit: Exercise photo via Shutterstock)

Got a minute? Then walk briskly, trot up the stairs, dart after that bus — do just about anything you can to raise your heart rate at least a smidgeon, and burn an extra calorie or two.

A dozen or so bursts of exercise lasting only a minute, accumulated during the course of the day, provide the same kind of health benefits as the government-recommended 10-minute bouts of moderate exercise, according to researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Their study appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion. [9 Healthy Habits You Can Do in 1 Minute (Or Less)]

The connection between exercise and good health is well established. Exercise overwhelmingly reduces the risk of just about every chronic disease plaguing people in the United States: obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, liver disease, kidney disease and more.

Yet despite the obvious benefits, fewer than 4 percent of Americans ages 20 to 59 achieve the minimum 150 minutes of weekly exercise recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Got time to exercise?

Many Americans complain that they don't have time to exercise, even in 10-minute blocks. The new findings from University of Utah researchers, however, make this excuse harder to defend.

The established recommendations date back to the 1970s, as Americans grew increasingly sedentary, and overweight, with widespread dependencies on such conveniences as cars, elevators and escalators, as well as changes to the way people work and shop. These recommendations were based on studies that found, for example, that three bouts of 10-minute exercise in one day were equivalent to a 30-minute workout of equal-intensity exercise, in terms of maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding various chronic diseases, particularly heart disease.

As the data accumulated, health officials refined the numbers and established in 2008 a recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, spread out in bouts lasting at least 10 minutes.

Now, researchers — led by Catherine Zick, an economist and professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah — dug a little deeper to challenge the validity and necessity of the 10-minute block.

Zick's team tapped the data gathered during a government study called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and analyzed the exercise habits of more than 4,500 adults ages 18 to 64. They found that minute-long bursts of high-intensity exercise — for example, walking very fast — was linked with lower weight and other health benefits on par with those resulting from 10-minute bouts of moderate exercise, such as normal walking.

Exercise & weight

The study also found that when people added such shorter bouts of higher-intensity activity to their day, men in the study exceeded the recommendation, accumulating 246 minutes per week on average, and women came close to meeting the recommendation, at 144 minutes per week on average.

"This research shows that when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, every little bit of exercise counts, as long as it's of reasonable intensity, such as a brisk walk, climbing stairs or jumping rope," said Jessie Fan, lead author of the report and associate dean of the College of Social Behavioral Science, Family And Consumer Studies at the University of Utah.

Of course, the researchers are just exploring the minimum. Exceeding these recommendations — for example, getting an hour of exercise daily — would lead to even greater health benefits.

For those who can't dedicate a large block of time to exercise, "Knowing that even short bouts of brisk activity can add up to a positive effect is an encouraging message for promoting better health," Fan said.

And who knows, maybe soon someone will find that the 30-second workout is really all we need.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of a new novel, "Hey, Einstein!," a comical nature-vs-nurture tale about raising clones of Albert Einstein in less-than-ideal settings. His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.