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No Time to Exercise? Accumulate Small Bouts Throughout the Day for Great Results

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Dr. Mike Esco has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and has over 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.

No Time to Exercise?

The benefits of physical activity are endless. In fact, most of the top causes of death are because of too little bodily movement, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and many forms of cancer. These conditions are referred to as "hypokinetic" diseases: hypo = too little; kinetic = movement. However, a physically active lifestyle can slash the risk of developing a hypokinetic disease in half.

Most professional health and fitness organizations suggest that we should do at least 30 minutes of moderate intense physical activity each day [1]. Though there are plenty of people who exercise for 30 minutes or more each day, it is difficult for most. After all, managing life's obligations (work, travel, family, etc.) often places self-improvement low on the priority list. It is no wonder that the most cited reason for not exercising is "lack of time". However, if you are like most, struggling to fit-in a bout of exercise during the day, keep reading because I have some great news.

Accumulating small bouts of physical activity throughout the day adds up!

Accumulating small bouts of physical activity throughout the day adds up!

Accumulate!

Guess what? You don’t need to get it all at once! You can accumulate 30 minutes (or longer) by being physically active in small increments throughout the day. You do not have to get it all at one time. Read that again. Small bouts of activity during the day add up.

Numerous research studies have compared the effects of continuous versus accumulated exercise on health parameters. I have summarized a few below. For an extensive review on this topic, please see reference [2].

A study from the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki, Japan [3] determined whether accumulating ten, 3-minute bouts of exercise versus one continuous 30-minute bout of exercise was effective for lowering the amount of fat (or triglycerides) in the bloodstream after breakfast was eaten the following day. The subjects in the study were obese men. The exercise performed was stationary bicycling. The results of the study showed that accumulating the 30 minutes in short bouts was equally effective in reducing blood triglycerides after the next day's breakfast as one continuous 30-minute bout of cycling.

Research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [4] sought to compare whether exercise in several short-bouts versus one long-bout per day would enhance exercise adherence, cardiorespiratory fitness, and weight loss. Two groups of overweight adult females were studied. Both groups were told to perform 20 to 40 minutes of exercise for 5 days per week. However, one group was told to perform one long bout while the other group was told to perform several short, 10-minute bouts each day. After 20 weeks, the group that accumulated exercise in short bouts performed an average of 223.8 minutes of total exercise each week while the continuous group performed only 188.2 minutes of total exercise each week. Both groups significantly improved their cardiovascular fitness assessment. However, the group that performed the short bout lost more weight than the long, continuous bout group.

A similar study was performed from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh [5], in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The results also showed that accumulating short bouts of exercise was as effective for improving cardiovascular fitness and decreasing body fat percentage as one long bout of exercise in overweight women.

In a large collaborative study [6], researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to examine the associations between objectively measured physical activity and all-cause mortality in 4840 men and women over the age of 40. Physical activity was objectively measured with accelerometers. By using this device, the researchers were able to determine how long a person engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. They were able to distinguish between long and short (less than five minutes) bouts of activity. After analyzing the data, the results demonstrated that a greater amount of physical activity each day was associated with lower mortality risks. But the most important finding was that it did not matter how they accumulated their minutes. If people accumulated multiple 5-minute bouts or longer, they lowered their risk of dying young if they achieved at least 30 minutes of total physical activity each day.

To put it another way, short walk breaks add up.

No time? No excuse! Accumulate small bouts of physical activity for great results.

No time? No excuse! Accumulate small bouts of physical activity for great results.

What do you do when you have an extra 5 or 10 minutes?

Think of various times during a typical day in which you can engage in some type of physical activity. Think creatively and be intentional. I recommend brainstorming by writing different types of activities, along with the time of day that you can perform the activity on a clean sheet of paper. Try to come up with at least 10 ideas.

For example:

  • Get up 10 minutes earlier than you are used to and go for a walk or a jog. Or, maybe you have piece of exercise equipment collecting dust and dirty clothes in the corner of your room…clean it up and use it for just 10 minutes. This could also be a great time for a quick strength or cardiovascular workout. The main point, just do something first thing in the morning for only 10 minutes. This will jump start your day in a positive manner.
  • Then, after lunch go for a brief walk with a group of co-workers around the office or even in the parking lot. Or if you are a stay at home parent, take the baby for a 10-minute stroll.
  • Later in the evening after dinner, go for a walk or bike ride around the neighborhood with your family or friends. Play basketball in the driveway. Or game of “tag” in the yard with your young children.
  • Throughout the day, wear a pedometer or physical activity tracker. Try your best to accumulate at least 10,000 steps per day.

Conclusion

If you are like most people struggling to find the time to dedicate to improving your physical fitness, you are in luck! Embrace the concept that small bouts of activity when accumulated throughout the day can be very effective toward enhancing your physical fitness. By doing so, you will learn a new way to be active. And as a result, you will discover that saying you don’t have time is really just an excuse. So, find the small windows of time to increase activity. Focus on doing activity you enjoy and do it often.


Comprehensive lecture on this topic from a leader in the field, Dr. David M. Buchner

References

[1] Garber, CE, Blissmer, B, Deschenes, MR, Franklin, BA, Lamonte MJ, Lee, IM, Nieman, DC, Swain, DP; American College of Sports Medicine. Position Stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2011; 43(7):1334-1359.

[2] Murphy, MH, Blair, SN, Murtagh, EM. Accumulated versus continuous exercise for health benefit: a review of empirical studies. Sports Med 2009; 39(1):29-43.

[3] Miyashita, M. Effects of continuous versus accumulated activity patterns on postprandial triacylglyceral concentrations in obese men. Int J Obes 2008; 32(8):1271-1278.

[4] Jakicic, JM, Wing, RR, Butler, BA, Robertson, RJ. Prescribing exercise in multiple short bouts versus one continuous bout: effects on adherence, cardiorespiratory fitness, and weight loss in overweight women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1995; 19(12):893-901.

[5] Schmidt, WD, Biwer, CJ, Kalscheuer, LK. Effects of long versus short bout exercise on fitness and weight loss in overweight females. J Am Coll Nutr 2001; 20(5):494-501.

[6] Saint-Maurice, PF, Troiano RP, Matthews, CE, Kraus, WE. Moderate-to-Vigorous Physical Activity and All-Cause Mortality: Do Bouts Matter? J Am Heart Assoc 2018; 7(6).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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