clockWatching - A 30-Minute Workout Can Be As Effective As a Long One

A SHORTER WORKOUT CAN BE EFFECTIVE, DEPENDING ON YOUR GOALS AND LONG-TERM COMMITTMENT.

The book titles and Web site banners promise near magic: The 30-Minute Workout, Get a Hollywood Body in Just 30 Minutes a Day, The 22-Minute Workout, 8-Minute Workouts, 8 Minutes in the Morning, The 15-Minute Desk Workout. Curves International, the women’s health club chain, promises you can burn 500 calories in just 30 minutes.

It sounds almost as miraculous as growing hair that was lost years ago. But are these short workouts truly effective? The simple answer is yes, they can be, with two qualifiers. One is that “effective” is subjective, depending on what your goals are. The second is that fitness should be a lifelong pursuit. Can this approach be effective over time?

All of which complicates things, of course. The hard truth is that short workouts are not as easy as they appear on paper. But they can be effective.

Intensity: The challenge of the short work workout

The challenge of short, less-than-30-minute exercise sessions is they pretty much involve concentrated, intense efforts. Such intensity can happen in a variety of exercise modalities: Treadmills, elliptical machines, stair-climbers and stationary bikes can each involve intensity. You can also achieve intensity through resistance training involving weights, cables, elastic bands and medicine and stability balls. Even simple body weight exercises through such activities as Pilates, yoga, Tai Chi and other disciplines can be intense.

A good example is the Tabata Protocol, developed by Nishimura Tabata at Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports. It pushes trainees through intervals of about 20 seconds of maximum intensity, alternating with 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times (over four minutes). It can be applied to a broad variety of exercises, and some proponents will alternate such things as sprint runs, calisthenics (push-up/squat combinations), punching a heavy bag and jumping rope. The principle at work is pushing the cardiovascular system to a point where the amount of air you take in (aerobic) is insufficient to feed the muscles, forcing anaerobic energy sources (fuel within the cells) to kick in. The protocol is used as a means of increasing caloric expenditure, during and after the workouts, ultimately leading to fat loss.

The exercise routines promoted by the 8-, 15-, 22- and 30-minute workout books offer similar advice but to different goals. For some people it’s simply about fitting in a short workout within a busy life. For others it’s about increasing muscle size, while a majority of these workouts push weight loss as the goal.

Even if you don’t follow them to the letter, a lot can be learned from each of these routines. Consider first the good news: It is truly not necessary to devote hours each day toward being fit. Reality television shows notwithstanding, true fitness is best achieved over time, methodically, with an eye on health. Competitive bodybuilders might spend four hours a day in a gym, as might also “The Biggest Loser,” but the human body can respond to time-concentrated exercise, too.

In a “more is more” culture, that may seem counterintuitive. But this is a matter of where working smart is better than just working a lot.

Many experts agree on the benefits of short workout sessions

In addition to the Tabata research, a handful of other studies support the idea of exercise in short-duration bursts:

  • McMaster University study (Gibala et al., reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005): Students who exercised regularly at a noncompetitive level were coached in 30-second “all out” intervals on stationary bikes. After two weeks, they doubled their endurance levels, which probably relates to the significant increase in an enzyme (citrate synthase) in their leg muscles that increased their ability to use oxygen.
  • Heriot-Watt University (Timmons et al., published in BMC Endocrine Disorders, 2008) studied short exercise sessions of four to six 30-second sprints. Done every two days, this routine showed that the body could increase its ability to metabolize sugars and consequently reduce the risk of diabetes.
  • Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, advocates the use of “super-slow” exercise, which despite its name can translate into a shorter, but intense, workout. From his widely cited research, a trainee could lift (concentric) or lower (eccentric) weights very slowly, pushing the muscle to absolute fatigue and failure in each set, with very short rests between sets. Westcott’s research shows significant gains in strength and muscle size with the method.

One effect to anticipate from all of these methods is EPOC, excess postexercise oxygen consumption. These calories are spent on metabolic functions relating to muscles that have been stressed — stress here being a good thing, in that it represents how muscles respond to challenging exercise.

But it all still requires the exerciser to do something that is physically unpleasant — a discomfort zone, so to speak — for a short period of time. Dr. Andrew Weil, the Harvard-trained guru of healthy living and aging, reports that he doesn’t really enjoy that part either, except his own personal trainer pushes him with the phrase “no challenge, no change.” This creates a much better image than the misinterpreted “no pain, no gain.”

Getting back to the two questions posed earlier: Can this be effective, and can it be part of a lifelong fitness plan? In the end it’s entirely up to you. You must be willing to break into uncomfortable intensity and keep at it for years to come.