Harvard Health Publications

Combine brief bouts of moderate exercise for health

Posted By Daniel DeNoon On September 11, 2013

No time in your busy schedule for a long workout? No problem. Combining brief bouts of moderate to vigorous exercise over the course of the day also add up to good health, an interesting new study suggests.

Most guidelines—such as those of the American Heart Association—call for at least 30 minutes of moderate plus vigorous physical activity five days a week in bouts of at least 10 to 15 minutes. Some experts call for even more. Exercise specialist Aaron Baggish, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, says people wishing to be in tip-top shape should strive to get in an hour of exercise five days a week.

Many people have trouble finding that kind of time. Is it possible to cram exercise into shorter bursts?

Every minute of exercise counts

To find out how we can squeeze more exercise into our lives, researchers led by Jessie X. Fan, PhD, professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, analyzed data on 4,511 U.S. adults age 18 to 64 collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Fan’s team identified people who accumulated at least the minimum recommended amount of exercise, but in shorter-than-recommended bouts of 10 minutes or fewer. They found that people who accumulated exercise in very short bursts and who got at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week had a lower body mass index (BMI, a measure of weight versus height) than those who didn’t get 150 minutes of exercise a week.

“We are talking about a brisk walk at three miles per hour, or anything of higher intensity like going up and down a flight of stairs or jumping rope,” Dr. Fan says. “This doesn’t change the recommendation of 150 minutes of brisk exercise a week or 30 minutes on five days. It is just a different way of accumulating this.”

The findings reinforce suggestions that people should look for simple ways to get short bouts of exercise: for example, by parking at the far end of the lot and walking briskly to the entrance, by taking the stairs quickly instead of riding the elevator, or by plugging in your earbuds and dancing energetically to a favorite song.

If you are a professional working a desk job at a computer, set a timer and every half hour get up and do a minute or two of something energetic, Dr. Fan suggests.

The Fan study isn’t the first to suggest that a little exercise is better than none, and that accumulating shorter bouts of exercise is better than not missing exercise days due to lack of time for a longer workout.

“This is a story that has been developing over some time,” says Dr. Daniel Forman, associate professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Now people have no excuse for not exercising.”

Related Information: Exercise: A program you can live with

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