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Ask the Doctors: Short-burst workouts of as little as 11 minutes can improve your health, study shows

Study participants were asked to work as hard as was comfortable for each one-minute burst of body weight exercise. Six weeks later, they were in measurably better shape.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and McMaster University in Canada created their own version of a well-regarded body weight workout. These are exercises such as jumping jacks, stair climbing, planks and squats (pictured).
Researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and McMaster University in Canada created their own version of a well-regarded body weight workout. These are exercises such as jumping jacks, stair climbing, planks and squats (pictured).
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Dear Doctor: Our dad retired last spring. Since he’s been home, he hasn’t been getting much exercise. Our mom is getting worried. I read that working out for just 11 minutes a day makes a difference. Is that really true?

A. We think you’re referring to the findings from a new study that, with an alluring “it takes only 11 minutes a day” promise, has been making a splash. It’s part of a growing body of research that looks not only at what kind of physical activity makes us healthier but also at how we perform those activities.

We’ve seen a growing understanding that intensity and duration play sometimes surprising roles in exercise.

We recently wrote about a different study, which looked at how much exercise helps lower mortality rates. It also found 11 minutes to be a sweet spot for exercise beginning to make a difference.

In the study you’re asking about, researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and McMaster University in Canada created their own version of a well-regarded body weight workout. These are exercises such as jumping jacks, stair climbing, planks and squats.

The exercise sequence was made up of one minute each of a specific body weight exercise, interspersed with a minute of walking or running in place. The 11 minutes also included a minute to warm up and cool down.

The 20 study participants were asked to work as hard as was comfortable during each one-minute increment of exercise. Six weeks later, the 11-minute exercisers were in measurably better shape — a 7% increase in endurance — than a control group who didn’t add exercise.

Short-burst workouts are just one part of a well-rounded exercise plan. You should still get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity spread throughout the week.

And don’t forget about stretching and weight-bearing exercises for strength, balance and stability.

Perhaps if you let your dad know he doesn’t have to commit to a daily hour at the gym, he’ll be willing to invest 10, perhaps even 20, minutes a day in his health.

Dr. Eve Glazier is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Dr. Elizabeth Ko is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.