Every Minute Counts

Last Updated: Jun 25, 2014 04:41PM MDT

"I don't have time to exercise."

I hear this from people all the time. For some, the idea of trying to find 30 to 60 minutes in their busy day to squeeze in a workout feels impossible. Luckily, you don't need to workout that long in one-shot to positively transform your body and your health. 

As I've mentioned in the article about the 7-Minute Workout, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a great way to get results when time is short. In fact, short and intense workouts are often shown to be more effective than longer workouts. I recommend these types of workouts to people all the time (whether they're busy or not), and I've incorporated HIIT into nearly all of our apps because they work better than the amount of calories burned should allow.

Stop obsessing about calories

I tend to get a lot of resistance from people at first because the total calories burned are so low. People are calorie obsessed whether it comes to diet or exercise. They hear that a pound of body fat contains 3500 calories so they decide that they need to burn off that number to lose any weight. While it is true that losing weight is a numbers game (more calories need to go out than come in), focusing on the numbers causes people to miss the point.

As I mentioned in a previous article, you can only burn so much fat each day. Obsessing over calories numbers instead of focusing on healthy foods leads people to starve themselves to lose fat. Not only does it make their lives miserable, but they end up burning more muscle than fat in the process. Even organizations like Weight Watchers have realized that counting calories is counter-productive. I've pointed out before how counting calories on the diet side can lead you astray, and the same is true on the exercise side. 

It is true that that a combination of diet and exercise has been shown to be the best way to lose weight, but when it comes down to it, diet is a far more important component in this equation. It isn't 50% diet and 50% exercise, it's more like 80% diet and 20% exercise. In fact, we all know plenty of people that exercise a ton but can't seem to lose any weight (you might even be one of them, I know I was). As I mentioned in a previous post, your body doesn't want to lose weight. Losing weight is a sign that you're starving to death, so your body fires up all manner of hormonal and subconscious defenses to protect you against weight loss.

This is why HIIT workouts are surprisingly effective for weight loss despite the low amount of calories burned. The workout burns some calories, but more importantly, the intensity of the workout curbs appetite throughout the day. The diet component of the equation works in your favor without you even having to think about it. Not only that, but short workouts leave you feeling energized while longer ones can cause you to feel wiped out. A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health found that on average when participants exercised for half an hour they lost 7.9 pounds over the three month study while those who exercised for 60 minutes a day only lost about 6 pounds. The  calorie numbers would have told you the longer session should have resulted in more fat loss, but the numbers ignore the total package. The participants doing longer sessions reported that they felt exhausted and demotivated to make healthy choices the rest of the day. Basically they moved less and eat worse to make up for all that hard work.

Every minute counts

A study in the American Journal of Health Promotion wanted to see if multiple short bouts of activity was as effective as a longer sustained workout. Their findings revealed that not only was it as effective, but they concluded that every minute counted. They found that for every minute of "brisk" activity added to the day, the subjects showed a reduction of 0.7 BMI. This means that a 5-foot 5-inch woman who regularly adds a minute of exercise to her daily regime should weigh almost half a pound less. Results were similar for men. Each daily minute of exercise also lowered the risk of obesity in women by five percent and in men by two percent. They concluded that intensity matters more than duration, something that more and more research is beginning to show as well.

So what counts as brisk?

Short workouts are fine, but only if the intensity is high enough. You don't need to work at maximum effort every minute but your breathing should be elevated throughout. I like to define brisk as "unpleasant, but not painful." That little voice in your head trying to preserve calories should be nagging at you to stop, but you don't need to get to the point where you're counting down the seconds because you don't think you can hang on anymore. Get your intensity up to make sure you get the most out of the time you have.

You don't have to do it all at once

Another big point of Every Minute Counting, is that you don't need to squeeze all of your exercise into one long session. Getting in 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there quickly adds up for some significant health benefits. In fact, studies have shown that multiple short workouts can burn more fat and better stabilize blood sugar levels than one long session. There are four main reasons why multiple short bouts of exercise seem to produce better results than one longer session:
  1. Higher overall intensity. People can maintain a higher intensity over the short duration than they could over a longer session. If you don't need to conserve your strength for the end, then you can push yourself harder throughout. This ultimately means that you can push yourself harder during each minute than you normally could have.
  2. Better adherence. Other studies have shown that people are more likely to stick to their exercise plan if it is composed of multiple short sessions. The biggest key to success is sticking to your exercise plan long term, and silencing that little voice in your head that tries to get you to give up is important. If you dread that long workout, you might be quick to jump at any excuse to avoid it. Short sessions may be more intense, but they don't feel nearly as brutal so you're more likely to stick to your exercise regimen long term.
  3. Increased fat mobilization. In order to burn stored fat, you first need to mobilize (release) it from your fat cells. Multiple sessions have been shown to mobilize more stored fat than a single session. This means you will be able to burn more fat in subsequent sessions because your body already mobilized it from the earlier session, making it readily available to fuel your workout (and the rest of your day). 
  4. Improved blood sugar levels. While a workout will lower blood sugar levels in the short term, studies have shown that multiple short workouts extend these positive effects for the next 24 hours. Controlling your blood sugar levels is not only important for your health, but it is important for weight loss as well. When blood sugar levels are high, your system is flooded with insulin which prevents your body from releasing stored fat and causes it to store any additional fat you consume. The less insulin your body needs to use throughout the day, the more capable your body will be of releasing stored fat.

Get the most out of your time

Don't feel like you have to workout hours a day to see any kind of results. Obsessing about the calorie numbers can cause people to push too hard when they first start a new fitness routine. This can lead to dreading your workouts, burnout, and even injury. Since every minute counts, just focus on getting in your best work whenever you can. Start off with short sessions and start adding more if you need to as your body adapts. Multiple short sessions can be more effective and more enjoyable than longer ones, plus you'll have more energy throughout your day to enjoy your life. 

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