Is It Better to Do Short Intense Workouts or Longer Easier Ones?

If a five-minute workout sounds like sham, science may suggest otherwise.

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People on treadmills in gym

Photo by: Jupiterimages ©(C) 2008 Jupiterimages

Jupiterimages, (C) 2008 Jupiterimages

This article has been updated since its original publish date.

You’ve likely heard this before, but it’s because it’s true: The best exercise you can do is exercise you enjoy. Dreading exercise often leads to burn out and frustration. To build sustainable physical activity habits, identifying movement you actually like doing is the first step. Viewing exercise as something we “get to do,” instead of something we “have to do” is helpful in promoting a healthy relationship with movement.

But what about once you find movement you love? How long do you need to work out each day to reap health benefits? And how intense do these workouts need to be? Can super-short workouts still be effective? We break down the research behind how much you need to exercise for your health.

How Much Exercise Is Recommended?

Per the American Heart Association, it’s recommended to get at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of exercise every week, and ideally this exericse is spread throughout the week. The exercise recommended is considered "moderate intensity," which could mean a brisk walk, a kitchen dance party, gardening, light tennis or even a leisurely bike ride. If you don't have time for 150 minutes, you could opt for 75 minutes of "vigorous intensity" exercise like running, cycling or swimming per week to reap similar benefits. The AHA also recommends incorporating strength training into your routine at least two days a week.

What "Counts" as a Workout?

Most of us can find 15 to 30 minutes five days a week to make time for movement. However there is more research that indicates that participating in exercise lasting even just one to five minutes may have positive health impacts. Researchers at the University of Utah found that short, demanding workouts throughout the day contributed to noticeable, beneficial health outcomes. Participants who incorporated brief high-intensity activities into daily life showed small decreases body mass index (BMI) compared to the control group. In addition, short intervals of vigorous activity have shown to enhance anaerobic and aerobic function.

What’s the takeaway? Move by any means necessary. Can’t do your regular 45 minute spin class today? Run up and down the stairs of your office for 5 minutes a few times throughout the day. It’s considered to be just as effective and can fit into your day if things get too busy for something more scheduled.

How Easy Can Exercise Be?

In addition to demanding exercise, short periods of moderately difficult exercise may also be beneficial for wellbeing. In fact, daily walking can improve cardiovascular health, reduce anxiety, and help manage weight. One randomized control trial measured health outcomes in 60 nonactive women for 8 weeks. The researchers investigated whether 30 minutes of walking 5 days a week in one continuous long bout or three short 10-minute bouts of walking a day showed differences in health benefits. The results showed that both groups experienced different metabolic benefits ranging from decreases in hip circumference to changes in blood pressure. Similarly, a 2015 study found that walking more than 2 hours a day was significantly associated with lower all-cause mortality in healthy community-dwelling older men. If you live in an urban area with limited space, walking is a great way to improve health, relieve stress, and connect with nature.

Finally, a 2013 study found that shorter workouts may have stronger appetite control effects in obese participants. One group completed one hour of exercise each day, one group completed 12 sessions of five-minute workouts per day, and one group was sedentary. The group that did the short workouts felt an average of 32% fuller throughout the daytime hours. Interestingly, there were no significant differences in total peptide YY concentrations (a type of gut hormone that act to control food intake) in the blood between the groups.

Bottom line: There is no such thing as “perfect” ways to exercise.

Any movement, no matter how short, adds up throughout the day and reaps positive health impacts. Is there anything worth noting about a minimum amount of movement to strive for to maintain weight? If you are crunched for time, more demanding activities in shorter bursts may have more profound metabolic effects than opting for moderate movement for 30 minutes. However, even a walk around the block can improve mood and mental health, especially on days when it feels impossible to fit a workout in. Aim to pursue exercise that you feel good doing. Based on your desired health goals, talk to an RD or certified personal trainer to customize or tweak your physical activity regimen.

Vanessa Rissetto received her MS in Marketing at NYU and completed her Dietetic Internship at Mount Sinai Hospital where she worked as a Senior Dietitian for five years. She is the co-founder of Culina Health and is certified in Adult Weight Management (Levels I & II) by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the founder of Culina Health. Her work in private practice also includes treatment of GI disorders, bariatric surgery, weight management, PCOS, and family nutrition. She loves helping clients take an active role in their health journey, motivating them and ensuring that they always achieve success. Vanessa was named by one of the top 5 black nutritionists that will change the way you think about food by Essence magazine. Vanessa lives in Hoboken NJ with her husband, two kids and their new goldendoodle Freddie. An exercise enthusiast, she is always up for a class as long as it's after she rides her Peloton.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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