You can make or break your health over the next few months with some easy but frequent effort. Whether your gym closes indefinitely, or you just can’t schedule an extended block of workout time, try intermittent exercise to stay fit. Micro-workouts not only spare precious time, but improve weight loss, and build strength.
Our ancestors naturally moved throughout the day. They walked (a lot), sat, squatted, knelt, climbed trees, and swam. I’m not the first person to spot the trend. Mark of Mark’s Daily Apple has written extensively about this topic. I’ve heard the same concept go by various other names including “mini workouts”, “trigger sessions”, and my favorite, “intermittent exercise”.
How do I define micro-workouts?
Essentially just micro-HIIT sessions. Or translated into normal English, moments of intense exercise. Unlike normal exercise, micro-workouts are extremely short and performed throughout a physically active day.
Don’t let the fancy term fool you. Micro-workouts are simple, quick, and convenient — even while holed up in the confines of your home. I’ll explain.
Using Micro-Workouts to Enhance Any Fitness Goal
Somehow we overlook the importance of normal everyday movement in favor of long gym sessions, and even longer cortisol-fueled runs.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) doesn’t require 45 minutes of punishing your body to bring about results.
I am the first to admit that there is very little research on micro-workouts. Especially on occasional bouts of brief, intense exercise. Although I would imagine that the effects would closely mirror HIIT but inducing far less stress. Can these brief periods of movement really compare to exercise?
Just one minute of intense exercise produces powerful genetic signals to increase your fitness. Some research suggests even shorter.
Building a Strong Aerobic Base
If you want to get good at running, you run.
If you want to get good at biking, you bike.
Unless you are training for a specific event, long endurance activities may not provide unique heart-strengthening effects. HIIT may be more effective than moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) for cardiometabolic health.
Well-trained rowers that transitioned from long low-intensity duration training to HIIT improved their aerobic systems.
Dr. Phil Maffetone agrees that general movement surffices to strengthen your aerboic system.
So frequent movement build that aerobic engine you once had. Your metabolism enjoys the movement too.
Getting Away With Poor Food Choices
I don’t advocate a low-quality diet. That said, if you plan on making a regrettable choice, get some exercise first.
Studies show that even a few days of inactivity can generate a significant decline in glucose tolerance and increase in insulin resistance. Worse blood sugar control quickly lead to weight gain and diabetes. The simple change? Move every once-in-a-while and you’re not considered sedentary.
Of course, putting some effort into physical activity can only help.
The aftermath of an ambitious workouts may feel good, but evidence favoring everyday movement constantly grows.
Burning Fat Through Intermittent Workouts
You may worry that without a gym session you won’t burn enough calories and gain weight.
Reviews on the matter show otherwise:
“Our results show that completion of interval training increases [whole-body fat oxidation] in approximately 50% of studies…”
This supports the idea that short intense exercise can burn body fat.
You can break down (pun intended) body fat into multiple different types. Of particular interest is the difference between white and brown. White fat stores energy. Scientists believe that brown fat burns white fat. I came across a study showing HIIT stimulates that process and increase calorie burning.
Staying even moderately active throughout the day does two other wonderful things for weight loss:
- It increases how many calories you burn going about your daily life, referred to as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT).
- It makes drains your muscles of glycogen (sugar) so that your next meal preferentially goes to refilling those stores.
The combined effect of a higher NEAT and depleted glycogen lead to weight loss.
Building Strength and Muscle
Have you ever heard of the 100 day pushup challenge?
Participants often go from barely able to complete a single pushup all the way up to 100 over the course of 100 days. They progress because of their gradual increase over months. According to conventional strength training advice this wouldn’t work because they need more rest. Well it works. Take the Instagram feeds of my friends — sitting at home bored during quarantine — as evidence.
How does this all translate to the physically active population? What about people that already follow a fitness routine?
This 2017 study of master endurance athletes showed 30 second intense exercise efforts increased both muscle power, and free testosterone. These findings holds up in other athletes too.
Those same rowers mentioned earlier also experienced greater 2000 meter time trial performance, power output, and better ability to withstand painful exercise after switching to HIIT.
You can apply the same concept to your new mini movements. Slowly build your movement habits up, and you won’t need long recovery periods for each muscle group. With time the exercises will become easier and you can handle more.
Keeping the Stress Low
Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.
Stress hormones turn on energy production and fuel your exercise sessions.
- Impaired learning and memory
- Lower immune function and bone density
- Increased weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease
Today, most of us have an issue finding the stress hormone off switch. Our punctual, deadline-driven inundates us with cortisol all day every day.
Typical exercise routines can add fuel to the fire. The aftermath of brutal workouts is free radicals, inflammation, and oxidative stress.
Over time this can lead to extreme fatigue induced by HPA Axis dysfunction.
To an already stressed body, micro-workouts can bring about beneficial changes without the added burden of additional stress. This aligns with our species evolution.
Our ancestors likely experienced tiny spurts of stress followed by recovery on a near daily basis. Only on rare occasion would our ancestors flee from a predator and keep stress hormones elevated for hours on end (as results from a typical workout).
You see the science, heard the explanation, and now want the details.
How to Micro-Workout Anywhere Without Equipment
You can make micro-workouts as simple or as complex as you want.
What’s important is that you start. Now, where to begin?
First things first. Think through your:
- Time. How much do you have available
- Location. Are you at the office (these days I would hope not)? Are you home?
- Equipment (optional). What gear do you have available to you?
The beauty of this workout style is the flexibility and options to fit any situation.
Minimal Time Commitment
Do you have a minute free? Good. One minute is enough. Heck, as some of the above research showed, even 30 seconds works.
I like to pair an interval of sedentary time I give myself to work, with a specific amount of exercise. The longer I sit around, the longer I offset it with exercise.
Here are some of the time and frequency pairings I like, along with my nicknames for each. By no means are they the only way:
- Brain booster: one minute sessions done every 30 minutes.
- Cardio builder: one to two minute sessions done every hour (bonus points for completing them on the hour).
- Strength master: five to ten minute sessions but far fewer. I usually shoot for three to four per day.
- Productive jock: a few minutes of movement between your calls, meetings, and appointments.
Go ahead and choose one of the above options based on your circumstances. Next, you pair it with a workout type.
Effective Workout Options
Do you have a preferred workout type? You can choose to focus on one throughout the day, or mix it up for each session.
- Circuit: pick several different exercises, HIIT style. Divide your session time across the exercises and rotate through each. Goes nicely with the longer sessions.
- Targeted exercise: focus on one major body part throughout the day (legs, chest, back, arms). Then tomorrow continue the cycle by choosing the next.
- Full-body: best paired with shorter sessions, you can practice full body exercises every day.
On to the fun stuff.
Plenty of Exercises to Choose From
Just about any exercise that elevates your heart rate works. Simple or complex. Equipment or not. Here are some of my favorites:
- Jump lunges
- Mountain climbers
- High knees
- Plyometric jump
- Kettlebell swings*
- Air squats
- Jumping jacks
- Running your stairs
- Or even a brisk walk
- You can use equipment from around the house. I’ve used a five-gallon water bottle or even a big bag of rice.
** Doorframes, trees, fences, overhanging objects are all fair game. Get creative.
Putting it All Together
There you have it. Now set a timer or schedule it into your calendar. When the time comes, perform the exercise (or circuit) for the allotted time, and go back to your normal life like nothing happened. Repeat again later.
Example Micro-Workout #1
A micro-workout schedule I would use without any gear could look like:
- Brain booster
- Targeted exercise
Every 30 minutes a timer on my computer reminds me to take my 1 minute squats break. Over the course of a work day this can easily add up to hundreds of squats.
Example Micro-Workout #2
I choose this one when I have more resources available:
- Strength master
In the morning, before lunch, later in the afternoon, and before the end of the day I set aside a few minutes to perform deadlifts. I have the luxury of a barbell in my house, but rocks and other heavy items work too. I perform several sets with rest in between.
Returning to work after a few minutes of intense exercise creates a rush of blood flow and nutrients to the brain. Don’t hold me responsible if you get more work done in less time.
I’ll say it again but ease into this. Like the pushup challenge hero that progresses from one all the way to 100 consecutive pushups, adaptation takes time.
Get Started Today
A quote I saw in one study perfectly summarized my view of low-level physical activity with occasional bursts:
“Physical activity, when properly prescribed, is an inexpensive and universal medication with minimal side effects. It is our ‘home pharmacy’ we always have with us.”
From the obvious body goals, to driving hydration deeper into your cells, to keeping your tissues supple.
If you decide to go back once gyms reopen, incorporating this easy strategy may help you break through a plateau and set a new PR.
Establishing the habit can take some time, but figure it out and the benefits of these little movement morsels compound throughout your life. You feel less guilty when the inevitable life event causes you to miss a workout.
I like to knock out some air squats in the back of planes. Every great once-in-a-while I even convince the flight crew to join in.
Let me know how your first micro-workout goes!