In the time it takes to cook a hard-boiled egg, people could be boosting their cardiovascular endurance, building muscle strength and increasing flexibility. While conventional wisdom holds that going to a gym or running for an hour is the optimum fitness choice, exercising for 10 minutes at least three times a day -- without wearing spandex or even using equipment -- can have similar health benefits.
That's what doctors and researchers have been saying for some time, but confusion persists. Ten minutes just doesn't seem long enough to do much of anything that would result in improved fitness, despite evidence to the contrary. "The biggest barrier people seem to have about exercise is a perceived lack of time," says Glenn Gaesser, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Virginia. And built into this is the notion that you have to change into exercise gear and may have to go to a gym and exercise for 30 minutes, sweat and then take a shower. All of these barriers creep up, and that's a turnoff to people."
A number of studies, including one done by Gaesser in 2001, show that exercise done in short spurts can have similar benefits to exercise done in longer stretches. In Gaesser's study, 40 sedentary women were asked to incorporate 10-minute sessions of walking, strength training with light dumbbells and flexibility exercises into their schedules 15 times during the week. By the end of the three-week study period, their aerobic fitness had improved 10% (which Gaesser considers "not a huge improvement" but on the low end of average improvement). Muscular strength had increased 20% to 60%, and weight loss averaged 3 pounds. (The women were not placed on a diet but were asked to incorporate more fiber-rich foods into their diets.)
"My program is no better than anything else out there," says Gaesser, "but I was trying to create a program that removed a barrier. Some people in the study got so into their own fitness levels that they didn't want to stop after the study ended."
A study done last year by researchers at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland tested 21 men and women, half walking for 30 continuous minutes and half splitting the walks into three 10-minute sessions. Both groups showed improved aerobic fitness and lowered blood pressure, and also reported that they felt less tense and anxious.
Walking isn't the only exercise that can be done in 10 minutes: Riding a stationary bike, climbing stairs, following along with a video or even marching in place can boost one's heart rate and provide cardiovascular benefits. Strength training can be done with a few repetitions using light weights or the body's own resistance with exercises as basic as the push-up. Warmup and cool-down periods can be built into the exercises by starting slowly, increasing exertion, then tapering off toward the end.
Short sessions are recommended by doctors and exercise physiologists to "just get people started," says Catherine Jackson, chairwoman of the kinesiology department at Cal State Fresno. "You're just trying to get someone in the habit. I usually start people with walking, then make that walk more brisk. Older people also get benefits from this. Actually, I don't think you can come up with an age where you don't see positive changes. The body is made to move, right up to the end."
One fitness program, LifeWaves, is based on the premise that exercising for long stretches is counterintuitive to our natural inclinations. It promotes fitness via short, intense bursts of movement followed by recovery periods: "There are no good models of endurance running," says Sean Hagberg, a medical anthropologist with the New Jersey-based company. "Almost all animal behavior is stop and go."
Overall, experts recommend keeping routines simple, especially in the beginning. That means you probably don't need high-tech gadgets that monitor your heart rate or record calories burned. "I can't imagine our ancestors out hunting for berries or wild game and checking their target heart rate zone," says Gaesser. "I think if people use a scale of perceived exertion and they're going at a level where they're noticing their breathing but not out of breath, that's fine."
Taylor Isaacs, a professor of kinesiology and a clinical exercise physiologist at Cal State Northridge, recommends a 10-minute circuit of strength-training exercises that work different muscle groups throughout your body. This could include wall push-ups, arm raises and abdominal crunches done in brief sets with no long pauses in between. Separate sessions of aerobic exercises can include walking, climbing stairs and marching in place with raised knees. To avoid burning out, vary your routines, says Isaacs.
"Walk forward, backward, sideways, take some telephone books and set up an obstacle course," he says. "You're only limited by your imagination."