Since the pandemic caused gyms and fitness studios to shut down last year, I’ve thrown myself into the world of at-home fitness (and have thrown my tired body onto the ground for many a torturous burpee). I’ve done strength, dance, and Pilates workouts on Zoom, YouTube, Instagram Live, and various apps. I’ve even tried to make up my own yoga flow.
By the autumn, though, I was starting to feel listless. I was sick of the lousy video quality during Zoom workouts, courtesy of my unstable WiFi, and more than that, I was bored. I’d find trainers I loved but would quickly get sick of hearing the same voice and doing the same bear crawls in the same tiny apartment day after day. I found myself signing up for 45-minute HIIT sessions but wanting to close my laptop and “sign off” within the first 15. By November, I could barely bring myself to roll out my yoga mat.
But this December, I tested out Apple Fitness+, the tech giant's new on-demand fitness platform. That meant I had to move my body, despite my funk. So I began to try their 10-minute workouts. I figured it was better than nothing, but secretly believed that I'd barely be moving for long enough to get up my heart rate. I didn't expect to totally fall in love with these brief classes — but that's exactly what happened.
Right off the bat, I found the mini-workouts easier to start — arguably the hardest part of any workout. I knew they'd be over in a flash, so I had no problem talking myself into just doing it. I was also more likely to squeeze a brief session into any spare moment, rather than waiting around until I had a huge block of time free, which — spoiler — tended to never happen. Soon, these snappy sweat sessions became my bread and butter, and I started exploring other new ways to work quick-hit fitness into my life. I even started Christmas day with an incredibly fun, 10-minute festive-themed dance workout by Pamela Reif on YouTube.
Once the ball was rolling, I’d sometimes decide to take on a second 10- or 20-minute class. But often, I'd stick with the 10 minutes. My shorter workouts were high intensity: Because I knew I'd be done soon, I found myself pushing harder, moving faster, and jumping higher than I'd been doing during my longer sessions. Still, part of me wondered whether the short bursts of activity were really doing much for my health or strength. But when I looked into it, I learned that small spurts of activity can have measurable results.
One minute of high-intensity activity can be comparable to a long moderate-intensity exercise session, a study in the journal PLOS ONE found. The researchers compared the insulin sensitivity, muscle function, and oxygen consumption of men who did 50 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling to that of men who did a HIIT workout (two minutes of low-intensity cycling, following by 20 seconds of a full-out push, repeated three times). Both groups saw similar improvements, compared to men who didn't change their routine at all. The study was small, but similar research (and studies of women) have shown similar results.
In fact, the research is so persuasive that in 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated that workouts that are shorter than 10 minutes do count toward the minimum aerobic guidelines — a notable shift (especially if you're someone who makes a point to use the stairs and wants that extra exertion to count for something).
“Intensity trumps duration,” says Martin Gibala, PhD, the study author and a kinesiology professor at McMaster University. “When it comes to efficient workouts, how hard you’re willing and able to workout is bigger than for how long." Both short, intense bursts of exercise and slow, steady state exercise make the heart stronger, the blood vessels more elastic, and the muscles more efficient — it just depends on which you prefer.
And now, I think I may just prefer the shorter workouts — and I'm not alone. The New York Times dubbed 2021 “the year of the exercise snack,” because these quick, bite-sized chunks of exercise have become more popular. That's apparent when you look back at the popular workout trends of 2020. Chloe Ting, who's known for her quick-hit sessions, was a top trending search in Google. Apple Fitness+ has a huge catalogue of short workouts, and Kayla Itsines' uber-popular Sweat app also added more "express workouts" to their roster this year.
Jay Blahnik, the senior director of fitness technologies at Apple, says their decision to create many 10-minute workouts was intentional. "The brilliance of shorter workouts is that not only does the evidence show that it makes a dent in your health, with Fitness+, we put a lot of love into designing great 10-minute workouts, so users will feel the celebration is just as big as with the 45-minute workouts," Blahnik says.
Of course, fitness is personal — what feels good to one person doesn't always feel good to another, and the goal is to find something that works for you without adding stress. For me, for now, that's been 10-minute workouts. I found them refreshing and helpful at a time when I was feeling some serious fitness fatigue. Now, even on days I’m tired or unmotivated, I’ll cue up a quickie.
Of course, my preferences might change down the road (as I said, I like to mix it up), but I hope the low-pressure philosophy sticks with me in 2021. Who knows, I may even say goodbye to my 45-minute burdensome burpee challenges forever.