Dust it off, we’re going for a ride | Photo: Daniel X. O’Neil, CC BY 2.0
The internet is breathless in its excitement over the possibility of being lazier, but they’re going to be a little disappointed with the reality. I, on the other hand, think the reality is still pretty cool.
The headlines are wrong again. You know how I feel about headline writers, and if you didn’t, the sarcastic headline to this post probably helps. “1 Minute of Exercise May Equal 45 Minutes of Moderate Exertion” reads the clickbait in the grey lady’s “well” blog, which sounds really appealing to people who just keep telling themselves they don’t have time to exercise. But the reality is not so miraculous (and yet, in my opinion, still really interesting).
The story is based on a recent study out in PLOS One about super-high-intensity short-duration interval training vs. longer-duration exercise. The study’s title is, well, descriptive: “Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment.” But you’ll already notice one issue with the NYT coverage: “five fold” is not “forty-five fold,” which is what you’d get comparing 45 minutes to 1 minute.
Scientists have been studying for a while the idea that short, sharp workouts might be just as good for you in certain ways as longer ones — this is the latest and most thorough study of the idea. The folks running this particular study took 27 sedentary men, split them into three groups, and ran them through 12 weeks of training. I’m not totally stoked at the numbers — 9 in one, 10 in the next, and 6 in control (since a couple dropped out) — but I don’t think they’re awful.
One kind of exercise was the longer duration, 45 minutes on a stationary bike at roughly 70% max heart rate with a two-minute warm-up and three-minute cooldown, for a total of 50 minutes, three times a week. The other was definitely shorter. After the same two-minute warm-up, they pedaled literally as hard and fast as they possibly could for twenty seconds, then took two minutes to pedal more slowly. Then they maxed out again, cooled down again, and maxed out a third time, before a three-minute cool-down. That’s a total of ten minutes of cycling time.
The very cool thing about this is that in three major indicators of fitness, the differences between the groups were statistically the same. Peak oxygen uptake, a measure of cardiovascular fitness, increased equally in both exercising groups (with no increase in control); skeletal muscle mitochondrial content, a measure of muscular fitness, also increased equally in both groups (with, again, no increase in the control group); and lastly their Insulin Sensitivity Index scores, a measure of metabolic fitness, also increased (and the control group stayed put).
This is exactly what the title of the PLOS One article claims: a five-fold reduction. The study very specifically did not only have participants bike all-out for one minute and then go shower. They forced their bodies into extreme exertion three times in ten minutes, rather than coasting for 45.
But before you decide to switch to a ten-minute exercise regime, let’s take a tiny bit closer look. Just so we’re clear, my peak heart rate (which I find really hard to reach and certainly couldn’t get to in 20 seconds, so there’s definitely a question of how helpful this kind of exercise will be once you’re already fit) is roughly 185, so 70% of that would be about 130 beats per minute. For me, that would be pedaling so slow I wouldn’t know what to do with myself, and I’m not sure I’d even qualify that as cardio. That’s just burning calories a little faster for 45 minutes. My heart rate goes faster than that trying to walk to work (I work at the top of heartbreak hill, though, so there’s that).
Furthermore, this is very specifically in sedentary men. Men who do no exercise at all. As I said above, the question of how useful (or possible) this’ll be if you’re already relatively fit is questionable — can someone with moderate cardiovascular health stress their body enough in 20 seconds to get their heart rate up high enough? I’d like to know.
There’s also the question of whether you’d be willing to do this: the study itself mentions that people don’t like interval training because it’s actually kind of awful feeling. I mean, I can only speak from personal experience, but I hate wind sprints, and this is exactly what that is.
But that said, it’s still pretty cool. A ten minute commitment, three times a week, seems to be enough to actually produce some kind of a result! It’s not huge, but it might be a neat way to kick-start your way out of a sedentary lifestyle and into the beginnings of fitness. Though, as I always say, it’s getting on the bike that’s the hardest part for me. Once I’m on it, I could be there for ten minutes or sixty — though 23 minutes is my go-to (which, coincidentally, is the length of most anime episodes on Crunchyroll… coincidence?) — but when all’s said and done, a little more time in your day might be the motivation you need.
One thing it’s not, though, is a one-minute exercise regime. Headline readers, as ever, beware.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.