With work, family, and social obligations competing for our time, it seems we're all keeping a frantic pace these days. It's hard to find time for a workout routine - and easy to see the allure of quick workouts that promise fitness in just a few minutes a day.
But can these popular programs really do the trick, or are they just another waste of precious time?
Well, say some fitness experts, it all depends on what you're after. Odds are, you won't become an elite athlete or greatly improve the health of your heart if you exercise only in quick workouts. But you might end up a little stronger and a little healthier - and maybe even look a bit better in your bathing suit.
According to online fitness trainer Jorge Cruise, author of the best-selling book 8 Minutes in the Morning: A Simple Way to Burn Fat, short bouts of weight training can help you build muscle mass and boost your metabolism. And that, he says, can help you lose weight.
The quick workout component of Cruise's program consists of doing four sets each of two strength-training exercises (things like push-ups and bicep curls), six days a week. After a quick warm-up, you do one set of 12 repetitions of the first of the day's exercises, then immediately follow with 12 reps of the second exercise. Repeat the cycle three more times and you're done for the day.
The book specifies two different exercises for each day, working chest and back one day; shoulders and abdominals the next; then triceps and biceps; hamstrings and quadriceps; calves and butt; and inner and outer thighs.
"The program is very specific," Cruise tells WebMD. "It has been designed to provide short workouts -- preferably done in the morning -- that will give your metabolism a boost throughout the day."
The eight minutes a day of strength training should help you lose an average of two pounds a week, says Cruise, who also recommends an eating plan emphasizing portion control and "healthy" fats. But Cruise is quick to emphasize that his program is not designed for overall fitness. "This is exclusively for weight loss," he says. "If you want to work on anything else, this is not for you."
Within the fitness industry, Cruise is one of several proponents of short sessions of strength -training exercise. Similar philosophies can be found in the books Power of 10: The Once-a-Week Slow Motion Fitness Revolution by Adam Zickerman and Bill Schley, and Flip the Switch: Discover the Weight-Loss Solution and the Secret of Getting Started by Jim Karas, among others.
Beyond strength training
But while Cruise touts the health benefits of strength training - it keeps your bones strong and your muscles toned - he does not discount the value of other forms of exercise. "If you want to keep your heart and lungs healthy, then you need cardiovascular exercise," says Cruise, who includes a section on power walking in his book.
Indeed, the Institute of Medicine recommended last fall that most Americans get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day (other health and medical organizations recommend at least 30 minutes of daily activity). But there is scientific evidence for the benefits of short bursts of exercise -- at least when the exercise is the aerobic type.
For example, in a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers found that three brisk, 10-minute walks taken throughout the day can be at least as effective as one 30-minute walk at reducing cardiovascular risk and improving mood.
The study involved 21 sedentary men and women in their mid-40s. Five days a week for a six-week period, the volunteers either took 10-minute walks three times per day, or a brisk walk lasting 30 minutes once a day. Then, after a two-week rest period, the two groups swapped their walking routines and continued for another six weeks. Both groups saw a slight drop in total cholesterol levels and improved their levels of "good" cholesterol and their aerobic ability. Both the long and short walks brought decreases in tension and anxiety.
And James Hill, PhD, director of the Clinical Nutrition Research Unit at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, who recently analyzed two national surveys of U.S. eating habits, believes most people can avoid weight gain by simply cutting back 100 calories daily - or by burning 100 extra calories a day. In the Feb. 7 issue of Science, Hill and his colleagues write, "this can be achieved by small changes in behavior, such as 15 minutes per day of walking."
When 8 Minutes Is Not Enough
Ken Turley, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the Wellness Center at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., says the value of quick workouts depends on what you're aiming for
For instance, he says, if you want to improve your physical performance - say, increase your speed in a 10K race or win a power-lifting contest - working out for a few minutes a day probably won't do you much good.
If you're interested in improving a specific aspect of your fitness, such as strength, endurance, or flexibility, quick workouts might help. But, he says, that's only if it comes on top of any exercise routine you're already following.
"If the eight minutes of exercise is in addition to what you're already doing, excess calories will be burned, and - assuming your caloric intake doesn't change - this deficit will result in better weight management," he tells WebMD.
Hill adds that only so many calories can be burned in eight minutes, regardless of the intensity or the type of activity. Assuming you burn about 100 calories in each daily eight-minute session, burning a pound of fat (3,500 calories) would take you 35 days.
Even among fitness trainers, there's considerable doubt that eight minutes of exercise a day is really enough for anyone.
"Eight minutes a day, of course, is better than nothing, but the surgeon general and the American College of Sports Medicine are still recommending 20 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to five times a week, and strength training two to three times a week on alternating days," says fitness specialist Kelli Calabrese, MS, ACE, CSCS.
The benefits of quick workouts, says certified fitness trainer Leigh Crews, are that they simplify a subject many people find confusing; provide step-by-step guidelines to follow; recommend a reduced caloric intake; and set up an easy-to-follow schedule.
"You're not really meeting the guidelines set forth by the ACSM, but if you're a totally sedentary individual, even training each muscle group once a week is going to show results over no training at all," says Crews, who specializes in continuing education for fitness professionals.
Get Fit the Sneaky Way
So what should you do if you want to improve your fitness and your health, but can't spare any more time or energy for a workout routine? Try sneaking in some exercise, suggest some experts. Research has shown that working activity into your daily life can be as effective as a structured exercise program in improving long-term cardio-respiratory fitness and blood pressure.
Alan Muney, MD, chief medical officer of the Trumbull, Conn.-based Oxford Health Plans Inc., offers these tips:
- Instead of taking the car for short trips, walk. Walking is a weight-bearing exercise that strengthens the bones and burns substantial calories.
- Combine a shopping trip with a brisk walk around the mall.
- Instead of taking the elevator or escalator, use the stairs.
- Listen to upbeat music while cleaning the house, and sweep to the beat.
- When traveling for business or pleasure, look for hotels with a gym or a pool. Pack a resistance band in your suitcase to keep arms and legs toned, and bring along an exercise tape if the hotel has a VCR.
- When you're traveling by car, stop periodically to stretch or take a short walk.
- Work your neck muscles, shoulders, and back with simple exercises done at your desk.
- Do abdominal crunches, push-ups, or leg lifts while lying on the floor watching television.
Keep in mind that adding exercise to your schedule, in any way, in any amount, can also improve other aspects of your life.
"Exercise lifts your mood, boosts your self-esteem, and reduces your stress," says Calabrese. "If you can manage to make exercising a priority, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much better you will be at managing life's tasks.
"In the long run, the time you invest in exercise, even in small amounts, will come back to you."