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Short Bursts of Activity Can Have Huge Health Benefits

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Businesswoman in office, training with skipping rope

Athletes and trainers know that alternating short bursts of high intensity exercise with moderate exercise, also known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), offers great benefits. But recent research has shown that even those who don’t exercise regularly can gain significant health benefits by adding a few short bursts of more intense activity to their daily routine.

“Short bursts of activity burn more calories, increase metabolic rate, and improve endurance and strength – all in less time. Simply ramping up your activity for a few minutes, a few times a day can improve health,” says University Hospitals sports medicine specialist Joshua Beer, DO.

Maximum Benefit, Minimum Effort

In a recent study lasting nearly seven years, wearable devices tracked the activity of more than 25,000 people with an average age of 60 who were non-exercisers.

Participants who added just three bursts of 1-2 minutes of vigorous activity during their daily routine were compared with those who maintained a normal activity level. Those who added short bursts of activity had a 50 percent lower risk of cardiovascular death and a 40 percent lower risk of cancer death than those who didn’t increase their activity level.

Short-Burst Activities for Non-Exercisers

How can you add short bursts to your day? A few times a day, add a high energy activity for a few seconds to a couple of minutes. The goal is to raise your heart rate:

  • Run up two or more flights of stairs.
  • Add short sprints to your normal walk from parking lots to stores or the office, to the bus, walking the dog or on a trail in the park.
  • Do a few jumping jacks or jog in place when you need a break from sitting at your desk.
  • Engage in brief vigorous play with your children or grandchildren.

The benefits? Short bursts increase endurance and strength as your effort pushes heart, lung and muscle capabilities beyond normal levels. And, along with the extra calories burned during the burst, an increased metabolic rate continues to burn extra calories afterward. An endorphin rush will also boost mood.

Short Bursts for Exercisers: The HIIT Routine

High-intensity interval training gives you the same benefit in a 10- to 30-minute session, as a 30- to 60-minute session of lower intensity activity. You can find HIIT classes and programs at fitness centers and online, or you can train on your own. You can do free exercises or use weights, a treadmill, bike or exercise equipment.

But you don’t need any special equipment. Dr. Beer suggests this simple routine:

  • Begin with a 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up using light calisthenics or running in place and dynamic stretches.
  • Then exercise as hard and as fast as you can for 10-30 seconds or as long as 1-2 minutes.
  • Follow the burst interval with 1-2 minutes of moderate activity or rest.
  • Follow with another burst and recovery, and repeat.
  • Cool down 5-10 minutes to relax muscles and reduce heart rate to normal.

Dr. Beer cautions that HIIT is a great form of exercise for 2-3 days a week, but it shouldn’t be your primary exercise routine. Doing it every day can set you up for burnout or overuse injuries.

Is It Right for You?

Short bursts of activity can be helpful to almost anyone. That’s because you can adapt the intensity and timing to your personal fitness level, appropriate for your maximum effort. However, talk with your doctor first if you have a history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, COPD, are usually sedentary, or if you have had exercise-induced cardiovascular symptoms such as shortness of breath, lightheadedness, chest pain or palpitations. If you’re a non-exerciser, ease into short burst activity.

“This recent study demonstrates that even for the non-exerciser short bursts of exertion are beneficial for health,” says Dr. Beer. “While not likely to be as beneficial as a HIIT routine, it shows that anyone – no matter their physical limitations or access to an exercise facility – can make some simple changes for long-term benefit. By increasing the pace walking from building exit to car or walking a few flights of stairs instead of using the elevator, you can get important health benefits.”

Related Links

At University Hospitals, our fellowship-trained sports medicine specialists, primary care doctors, nutritionists, sleep experts and other healthcare professionals ensure the very best sports medicine care for active people.

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