All You Need Is 20 Seconds to Improve Fitness

CC BY 2.0. Thad Zajdowicz

The author of the 'One-Minute Workout' has pared it down to a mere 20 seconds!

Two years ago, Dr. Martin Gibala published a book called "The One-Minute Workout." It showed how a single minute of high-intensity exercise can improve health and fitness – and everyone has a minute to spare, don't they? Gibala, who is a kinesiology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, is now back with more research that suggests even just 20 seconds of exercise makes a measurable difference.

The study was led by two of his students, Madison Jenkins and Leah Nairn, and published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Twelve participants were instructed to dash up flights of stairs for 20 seconds and do this three times daily, with 1-4 hours of rest in between. This was repeated three times per week for six weeks, then their fitness level was compared to that of 12 people in the sedentary control group. The Globe and Mail reports:

"The results showed a significant 5 percent increase in aerobic fitness, as measured in an exhaustion test on an exercise bike. That’s about half the size of the improvement seen in some of Gibala’s previous, more time-consuming protocols, so you do pay a price for convenience."

While I have trouble imagining how sedentary that control group must have been if they didn't even do the equivalent of the stair-climbing exercise, the main takeaway from this is that small bits of exercise – or the aptly named 'exercise snacks', as they're called in the study – do add up and make a difference.

This differs considerably from the official Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, which recommend accumulating 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week in 10-minute bouts or longer. Of course you'd be considerably fitter doing 150 minutes per week than 20 seconds of stairs nine times a week, but the point here is that every little bit is an improvement over nothing.

Gibala hopes that his research can motivate those individuals who claim not to have time to exercise, but Alex Hutchinson, writing for the Globe and Mail, doesn't sound convinced:

"Critics such as Iowa State University exercise psychologist Panteleimon Ekkekakis have argued that lack of time isn’t really what stops people from exercising, and that the unpleasantness of intense interval training will actually make people less likely to stick with a new workout program."

Despite being a bit of a gym rat myself, I wish that we could stop thinking about exercise as being separate from day-to-day life. If it were incorporated into the way people move around, the notion of having to make time in a jam-packed day to go to another location to work out – or even take time out of the day to run stairs – would become less pressing. Instead, we'd be leaving our cars at home and walking kids to school, riding bikes to work, and choosing stairs over elevators, while reaping the physical (and environmental) rewards.

Still, for those days when doing anything seems like a hassle, Gibala's 20-second workout is a good one to keep in your back pocket... but don't wait around for him to pare down even further. In Gibala's words, "I certainly don’t think we are going to get much lower in terms of the minimum dose of activity that can yield measurable benefits."