Can Shorter Bouts of Exercise Help Fitness and Fat Loss?

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Shorter workouts multiple times per day are beneficial.  

Walking

Walking

We all know that weight loss is a simple concept that is hard to implement and maintain.  For you to lose weight you need to eat less or exercise more and optimally, you should do both.  The research supporting the benefits of regular exercise and eating less is overwhelming and undeniable.  I do not think there is a single individual that would argue that regular exercise and a healthy diet is anything but good for you and your health.  

If you are like me, you have very little time to dedicate to exercise. I don’t have the time or the desire to spend the money to invest in a gym membership.  In the past, I have purchased a membership and failed to use it regularly.  The question I always have is if I can insert steps into my day at work and get short bouts of exercise will it make a difference in my body fat and fitness level?  

Most exercise guidelines, like those written by the American Heart Association, suggest that we get at least 30 minutes of moderate and/or vigorous physical activity five days a week. That is a total of 150 minutes of exercise a week. Could folding clothes, doing calisthenics between meetings, shoveling snow, washing dishes, raking the leaves, lugging laundry up the stairs, or pacing while chatting on the phone be as effective as a workout in the gym?  Can these activities add to fitness if those short bursts of activity add up to 30 minutes a day?

Research on shorter bouts of exercise:

  1. Exercise

    Exercise

    One study by Fan looked at data on over 4,500 American adults between 18-64 years of age from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NANES).  They found that subjects who accumulated exercise in short bursts of less than 10 minutes but who got at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week had a lower body mass index than those who failed to acquire 150 minutes of exercise per week.  The findings support that exercise less than 10 minutes is highly beneficial, supporting the public health promotion message that ‘‘every minute counts.’’[1].  

  2. Another study looked at short bout versus long bout exercise.  The results suggest that short bouts of exercise may enhance exercise adherence. Short bouts of exercise may also enhance weight loss and produce similar changes in cardiorespiratory fitness when compared to long bouts of exercise. Thus, short bouts of exercise may be preferred when prescribing exercise to obese adults[2].  
  3. A study looked at short and long bouts of exercise in 47 women.  They decided the women into two groups and allowed one group to do long sessions of 30 minutes of brisk walking, and the other group did bouts of 10 minutes.  They compared skinfold thicknesses and waist circumference and found a decreased in both the short and long walking groups. Changes in anthropometric variables did not differ significantly between the short and long bout walkers. Thus short bouts of brisk walking resulted in similar improvements in fitness and were at least as effective in decreasing body fatness as long bouts of the same total duration[3].  
  4. Two studies confirmed HIIE is effective at lowering body fat and insulin resistance in bouts up to three times a week.  Shorter sessions may be more convenient for busy individuals[4],[5].  
  5. One last study from 2016 looked at the effects of moderate versus vigorous intensity exercise in which the subjects all burned 400 calories in exercise.  The found positive changes in the fat burning mechanisms were activated and fat storing ones were reduced regardless of the exercise intensity[6].  

Although longer periods of exercise is preferred and I am by no means saying that shorter bouts are better, shorter bursts of exercise are a legitimate option for those who struggle to find time to exercise.  It appears that shorter bouts of exercise provide the same benefits regardless of the intensity.  Exercise in smaller chunks may also increase adherence to a diet and exercise plan, and that is a good thing.  Short bursts of physical activity appear to be as good for health as longer workouts and “every minute counts” toward better health so enjoy your 10-minute mini-plans in addition to your longer workouts.    

Footnotes
[1]Fan et al., “Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity and Weight Outcomes: Does Every Minute Count?”
[2]Jakicic et al., “Prescribing Exercise in Multiple Short Bouts versus One Continuous Bout: Effects on Adherence, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Weight Loss in Overweight Women.”
[3]Murphy and Hardman, “Training Effects of Short and Long Bouts of Brisk Walking in Sedentary Women.”
[4]Trapp et al., “The Effects of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Training on Fat Loss and Fasting Insulin Levels of Young Women.”
[5]Boutcher, “High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss.”
[6]Walhin et al., “The Impact of Exercise Intensity on Whole Body and Adipose Tissue Metabolism during Energy Restriction in Sedentary Overweight Men and Postmenopausal Women.”
Boutcher, Stephen H. “High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss.” Journal of Obesity. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2011. doi: 10.1155/2011/868305
Fan, Jessie X., Barbara B. Brown, Heidi Hanson, Lori Kowaleski-Jones, Ken R. Smith, and Cathleen D. Zick. “Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity and Weight Outcomes: Does Every Minute Count?” American Journal of Health Promotion. SAGE Publications, September 2013. doi: 10.4278/ajhp.120606-qual-286
Jakicic, JM, RR Wing, BA Butler, and RJ Robertson. “Prescribing Exercise in Multiple Short Bouts versus One Continuous Bout: Effects on Adherence, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Weight Loss in Overweight Women.” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders : Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 19, no. 12 (December 1, 1995): 893–901. [PubMed]
Murphy, MH, and AE Hardman. “Training Effects of Short and Long Bouts of Brisk Walking in Sedentary Women.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 30, no. 1 (January 1, 1998): 152–57. [PubMed]
Trapp, E G, D J Chisholm, J Freund, and S H Boutcher. “The Effects of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Training on Fat Loss and Fasting Insulin Levels of Young Women.” International Journal of Obesity. Springer Nature, January 15, 2008. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803781
Walhin, Jean‐Philippe, Natalie C. Dixon, James A. Betts, and Dylan Thompson. “The Impact of Exercise Intensity on Whole Body and Adipose Tissue Metabolism during Energy Restriction in Sedentary Overweight Men and Postmenopausal Women.” Physiological Reports. Wiley-Blackwell, December 2016. doi: 10.14814/phy2.13026
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About the Author

ChuckH

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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