7 Ways to Make the Most of a Short Workout


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  43 comments   :  33,573 Views

A few years ago, Boston Sports Clubs conducted a study to find out how exercise duration affected one’s adherence to a workout program. They found that participants who exercised for 20 to 30 minutes actually exercised more consistently than people who worked out for 45 to 60 minutes at a time. The results are clear: You may be more likely to stick with shorter workouts than longer ones.

These findings didn’t surprise anyone at SparkPeople, since we’ve found that short workouts provide a great foundation to build lasting lifestyle changes. And why are longer workouts harder to stick to? Time constraints coupled with an all-or-nothing exercise mentality (deciding it’s better to do nothing when you can’t fit in a full hour) could be to blame.

When SparkPeople founder Chris Downie and I were researching and writing the new Strong Start Guide for the new paperback version of The Spark, we discovered similar findings. We surveyed more than 2,000 members to find out exactly what they did in the first two weeks of their weight-loss programs to either make or break their motivation and affect their results. "Strong starters" were the most successful in the beginning—and in the long term, and the habits, attitudes and even workouts they followed were markedly different than those whom we refer to as "false starters." When it came to exercise, these two groups couldn't have been more different!

Both strong and false starters alike seem to know that exercise is an important component of a weight-loss plan. In fact, the majority of people in both groups incorporated three to five days of exercise per week when starting their programs. But would you believe that the people who lost more weight and got off to a stronger start spent less time working out?

On average, strong starters exercised for 30 minutes per day during the first two weeks. For false starters, the amount was double: they sweated for an average of 60 minutes per session. So why did they get off to such a slow start? A few factors could be at work here.

Doing too much too soon can easily lead to exercise burnout and sap your motivation, plus going from zero to 60 minutes right off the bat can also increase your risk for injury.

SparkPeople member RONIROO2U had a strong start that led her to drop more than 100 pounds, but not before trying and failing all sorts of other diet and exercise programs. “What worked with SparkPeople were the small lifestyle changes that I took on one day at a time," she explained. "I realized that I could adapt to lifestyle changes based on my own preferences. I didn’t have to work out on a StairMaster for 30 minutes a day, for example. I could get in my daily exercise with ten minutes here and there.”

Another relevant discovery was the overall attitude that false starters had toward exercise. They were less likely to enjoy it than strong starters, less likely to make an effort to change up their workouts, and less likely to try new exercises. One could make the case that these long workouts were nothing more than a punishment—something false starters didn’t view positively to begin with and therefore couldn’t maintain for the long haul.

If you've been struggling to stick with a workout routine, maybe it's time to stop forcing it and just do less! Short workouts can be just as effective. In fact, here are some tips to make the most of a short workout.

7 Easy Tips to Make the Most of a Short Workout
You can get great results with short workouts, not only because you’re more likely to stick with them, but also because you’ll learn to maximize what little time you have to devote to exercise. Use these ideas to get better results in less time!
  1. Add incline. If you’re using cardio machines or walking or biking outdoors, take to the hills! This will challenge your body more and burn a greater number of calories in the same amount of time.
  2. Don’t hold on. Leaning on the handles or console of a cardio machine feels easier for a reason: it takes weight off your lower body so you’re not working as hard. Resist the urge to relax by focusing on good posture.
  3. Try intervals. Interval training (alternating between higher-intensity and lower-intensity bursts within a single workout) improves your fitness level and burns more fat than exercising at one steady pace. Try short intervals (start with 10 to 30 seconds) of high-intensity exercise, such as running, followed by some longer intervals (about one to two minutes) of lower intensity moves, such as walking. Repeat several times throughout your workout session.
  4. Don’t fear the weights. Strength training can help improve your appearance and boost your metabolism so you burn more calories, even at rest.
  5. Get on the circuit train. Keep your heart rate up, stoke your metabolism, and get more done in a single workout by moving quickly from one exercise to the next to diminish downtime.
  6. Use more muscle. Compound exercises, which work multiple muscle groups at once, save you time. Try to combine exercises, working the upper and lower body at the same time, whenever you can.
  7. Lower slower. Use a two/four count during strength training: take two seconds to lift but four seconds to return the weight. Research shows that exercisers who lower the weight in this slow, controlled manner gain nearly twice the strength as those who take less time.
Do you agree with the results of this survey? Are short workouts a key to your success? Why or why not?

The content of this blog post was excerpted and/or adapted from the Strong Start Guide by Chris Downie and Nicole Nichols, found only in the paperback edition of SparkPeople's best-selling book, The Spark. For more secrets to a strong start, pick up your copy today!

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  • 43
    Shorter workouts, great tips! - 9/14/2017   11:29:29 PM
  • 42
    I agree with the with this. I have a trainer 2 days per wk and he uses a lot of these. I am 67 yrs old and I can really tell that these are helping me. He switches off on different exercises and I have been doing these for almost 2 yrs. I feel so much better now! - 3/19/2015   4:28:30 PM
  • PTGRAD2001
    Thanks for the tips. I try to make the most out of all the time I have. My husband accuses me of turning everything into a workout or exercise. - 2/1/2011   7:01:29 PM
  • 40
    30-45 minutes for me works best! I do an hour or more twice a week (once with my trainer and once in yoga class). I find it so much more enjoyable to work harder and smarter for a shorter period of time then commit to a long time in the gym... - 1/31/2011   9:51:48 AM
    I liked this article very much. I take inclination while doing treadmill, dont hold on to handles and try to do interval training too!! - 1/31/2011   2:08:06 AM
  • 38
    I'm in the gym almost evry day for at least 60 min if not 120...(that is the limit how long may kids can stay at the kids stuff). - 1/30/2011   11:31:46 PM
  • 37
    Two years ago I made a New Year resolution to exercise 30 minutes a day JUST FOR ONE MONTH. Now, two years later, I not only made that happen, but I do at least double that nearly every day. I have also lost 58 pounds! Not setting my goals too high initially kept me from being discouraged. - 1/30/2011   10:19:43 AM
  • 36
    The less I do the lesser I start doing. But yes starting off too fast and too much hasn't helped me in the past. Now I have a routine in which I exercise two times per week for sure. These moments are fixed and planned in my calendar. Nobody can touch those. If my schedule allows me, like today, I hit the gym again. So at least twice a week and if possible more. Are there results? Yes and now. I also need to focuss on the intake. But at least I am not gaining as massively as before. So no for the scale yes for keeping up my exercise streak. - 1/30/2011   8:37:19 AM
  • 35
    I have mostly done short workouts since starting Spark. 30 min of cardio 5-6 days/week and adding strength training for approx. 30 min 3 days a week. But lately I feel like that is not enough. I plateaued for a long time and lately I've regained some weight. There are other reasons contributing to that which I won't go into here, but I do feel like I need to ramp it up either the intensity or length of my workouts. Unfortunately when I try to do that, I always seem to injure something. So I'm still trying to figure out how to get to that next level. - 1/30/2011   1:15:44 AM
  • 34
    I have certainly experience the all-or-nothing mindset. The 10-Minute Challenge has made a world of difference for me and now I am exercising a lot more consistently. - 1/29/2011   6:45:46 PM
    I agree. I know that for myself, I have been able to stick with shorter workouts. To most beginners, 60 minutes seems quite daunting, so starting with 20 minutes is more managable. - 1/29/2011   5:50:21 PM
  • 32
    I like the idea of several shorter workouts - just cos I know I can manage atg least 1, probably 2, 10-minutes' each day. And more is a bonus.
    Also - on days I'm feeling good to go - I can do several different lots of 10-minutes.
    But - I do like to keep to the SP idea of different parts of the body on different days. So if I'm going to do lower body, one day, and feel inclined to do more than 1 video - I look for other lower body things to do.
    That gives me more variety than just doing the same thing every day or every other day. - 1/29/2011   5:23:24 PM
  • 31
    Thank you for the information. I do both long and short workouts. I'm flexible to that time I have. If I have less time to work out I still go and get in what I can. I don't decide not to go. I'll have to add some of the suggestions for making more out of the shorter ones. At lunch some times I go work out. When I tell my coworkers that I got in 15 min they ask if it's even worth going. But it gets my heart rate up, I can burn up to 200 calories depending on what I do and it gets me out of the office for a little while.
    Thanks again - 1/29/2011   1:39:54 PM
    I must agree with the strong/false start theory. This is my 3rd time "starting". The first 2 false starts were a result of trying to do way too much at once. I have completed my first full month of working out, which is a fete since my 2st two false starts only lasted maybe 2 weeks (okay, really a week and a half..). I'm excited to go to the gym because I've broken down my workout routine so that I can spend the necessary time working out and not be rushed.. - 1/29/2011   12:53:38 PM
  • 29
    I must try some of these - 1/29/2011   12:40:05 PM
    I have actually found what the activity is matters more than the time! If I really love the activity, I make every effort to get there, even if it is a 60 minute class. Whereas I don't like going to the gym so I only go there for 30-40 minutes. - 1/29/2011   12:27:00 PM
  • 27
    I've made it a firm habit since joining sparks to get straight into my workout gear when I get out of bed and exercise everyday- be it strength training or cardio or a mix.
    I feel tons better for it and have energy levels I never imagined.
    I started with just 10 mins........which was knackering........now I can workout for as long as like AND be active all day"

    I love long ST (45 mins) and get at least one 1 hour cardio session in a week - 1/29/2011   12:00:09 PM
  • BECKA4642
    I have a hard time finding the time to read the paper everyday. The tread mill is boaring & troucher to me. I use my time on the treadmill to read my paper. The next thing I know my 30-60mins are up & I have walked 1.5-3+ miles & don't even notice it. - 1/29/2011   11:36:29 AM
  • 25
    I haven't missed a day of exercise in a year since I started doing a short workout of 30 to 40 minutes. My weight is down 25 lbs. I do aerobics, jump on a mini trampoline , do 100 crunches a day now and use small weights. I'm 65 and feel the best I have in years...even after having a double mastectomy. I can't handle working out for an hour. - 1/29/2011   10:07:26 AM
  • 24
    I honestly think placing an explicit limit on exercise has been one of the best things I could do for my weight loss. I used to try by working out an hour every day, and then I would get obsessive, going for 2 hours, and I was exhausted all the time, my body hurt, I didn't feel good, and I would just quit. Now I am scheduling no more than 1 hour of exercise 3x a week... this week I did it in 30 minute bursts first thing before breakfast and I feel great - not tired, not totally amped up, just grounded and in control of my body. - 1/29/2011   10:00:01 AM
  • 23
    I've done both longer and shorter workouts, and learned that, for me, shorter is better for a reason I don't think I've seen here--I'm more efficient, don't waste time/energy. If I'm spending 45 minutes exercising, I don't exercise for 45 minutes, but if I've only blocked in 20, that 20 is used entirely for exercise--better intensity, better focus. So, 20 is actually better than longer for me. - 1/29/2011   8:31:03 AM
  • 22
    I agree that it is easier to start with the shorter workouts I find that at the end of the day it doesn't seem so difficult to stick to exercising if I only have 10-15 min workouts. I have also noticed that i have slowly been adding more exercise as time allows or better yet as my energy allows. - 1/29/2011   7:12:24 AM
  • 21
    Sure glad I read this article! The timing is perfect, and it reflects my reality. I enjoy doing Leslie Sansone's 1, 2 & 3 mile DVD. The 1-mile is so easy to fit in. But I often "put it off" until I can do the 2 miles, and often end up not doing anything. From now on, I plan to do that 1-mile walk in the morning before work, and if I can fit in more exercise later on during the day, so much the better. But if not, at least I'll have gotten those 15-20 minutes in. - 1/29/2011   5:59:16 AM
  • 20
    An hour of exercise, especially if it is something you dislike or find boring, can be daunting. Add in a need to do all those little things in life and it is easy to push those huge blocks into tomorrow and ultimately stop exercising entirely. At least that is what I discovered when I was doing an hour on the elliptical. As it became more and more of a struggle to get the hour in, I changed my routine to half an hour and found it much easier to actually exercise. I am currently running for 40-70 minutes 4 times a week and loving it, including the variable time schedule. It helps that it is outdoors-I saw two sets of deer while out yesterday.

    I am also doing weight training at the gym 5 days a week (alternate body segments so nothing gets over worked) for 20 minutes a session. I have always followed the 2/4 rule and wondered about those who do quick jerky movements as it seems like a good way to get injured. - 1/29/2011   5:21:07 AM
  • 19
    The only to make my manual treadmill go is to hang on to the handles! - 1/29/2011   5:10:27 AM
  • 18
    Nope, sorry. Sure, a short workout is better than nothing, and that probably fits into most people's schedules better, but it didn't work for me. For years I was working out 3-5 days a week for 25-45 minutes and it wasn't cutting it. It wasn't until I went to a cardiologist who said the older we get the harder we have to work that something finally clicked for me. For the past year I've increased my workouts in intensity and duration and finally dropped the 35 pounds that have been hanging on for years. I use kettlebell workouts, lots of circuit-type routines with dumbbells, step workouts, whatever I can find. On my light days I'll do just cardio and it feels like a breeze. I'm feeling better than I have in years. I love to mix it up and like to wear a pedometer to remind myself to get up and move some more. I'm accepting that this is just what it is going to take for my life. I love it! (It also helped that I started to really get honest with how much I was eating by journaling using an iphone ap.) - 1/29/2011   2:14:23 AM
  • 17
    I would definitely agree that (at least when starting out and getting into a routine) shorter workouts are much more manageable and beneficial than longer ones. I know that I personally am all over the place during the day with work and household things, and I very rarely am able to fit in a 45-60 minute workout session anymore. However, if I think of it as 15-minute chunks or a 30 minute session, that is MUCH easier for me to plan around and stick to! Especially when I'm coming home from work, it's late at night, and I have to head back in the next morning... if I was planning for a 60-minute stretch, I'd most likely just give up on it... less is definitely more in this case. :) - 1/28/2011   10:49:50 PM
  • GRITS46
    I joined SP in May following a left knee injury in February 2010. About the beginning of June I learned that the right knee had a meniscal tear that had gone unnoticed during PT and treatment for the left knee. Bummer! This means that for almost a year I've been physically inactive for the most part. Returning to exercise January 1, 2011, was daunting. I began by increasing the amount of time and intensity prescribed in PT for the right knee, and quickly overdid it. That's something I'm prone to do. Success has come for me in using shorter workouts on the bike and for other exercises because I am less inclined to over do it. So, this is right for me; but it might not be right for others. I believe this is a very individualistic choice. Great article! - 1/28/2011   10:14:37 PM
    I suppose a short workout is better than nothing, but it wouldn't work for me and in no way help me reach my goals. I do endurance events (100 mile biking, triathlon, marathons), so 10, 20, even 30 minutes is nothing. I understand the "all or nothing" mentality; it doesn't affect me, though. Exercising is a priority for me (more than TV, shopping, computer time, etc), so I make time in my daily schedule for the amount of training I need. Plus, I really enjoy it!!
    As another poster said, I too, began Spark having a good base for exercise and I don't think I am the average "Sparker". I've been a life-long fitness buff (in spite of whatever weight I might have been). I started in college and I'm 46 now, so that's 26+ years of consistent workouts. - 1/28/2011   9:01:39 PM
    I totally get this. I stopped working out before becasue I had no time to do thirty plus minutes. I used the videos to workout while I was watching the news. I get in 20 minutes plus a day now. The weekends are my time for longer spurts and when I have more time. NO EXCUSES NOW - 1/28/2011   7:59:42 PM
  • 13
    With Jackie Warner I'm doing compound and I'm following a circuit. I can tell the difference by adding her DVD to my exercise regimen. - 1/28/2011   7:39:17 PM
  • 12
    I like all of this I worked out for 30 min to start and then increased to 60 to burn more but truthfully that 60 min workout was a killer so I think you need a medium like 45 and then stretch after or cool down really don't push it - 1/28/2011   4:23:40 PM
    For me, shorter workouts generally are better because I have a natural inclination to overdo it and hurt myself. I also agree that the risk of burnout is higher the longer your workout. The goal is to still be exercising next year, not to max out on fitness minutes this week. These days, I do a mix of shorter and longer workouts because I'm training to walk a half marathon, but when that's done, I'll go back to my regular routine of shorter workouts for at least a few months. - 1/28/2011   4:21:15 PM
    I agree with a lot of posters here - it's better to have 10 min than none at all. Once you get into that groove, it's natural to want more. - 1/28/2011   3:45:03 PM
  • 9
    I had not been exercising at all but knew that i would have to start somewhere. So i purchased a walk at home DVD by Leslie Sansome. This past Monday i did my first work out for i mile in 15 minutes. I hurt when i got finished. Now it is Friday and i have done this every day this week. When i have mastered the 1 mile walk i will start with the two mile walk, but i am not quite there yet.
    I think that short work outs have worked for me because now i am actually moving for 15 minutes a day. I know that for me i would burn out at 60 minutes a day very quickly.
    Gayle - 1/28/2011   2:46:26 PM
    I think that the short workout is better than no workout at all!!! - 1/28/2011   2:21:30 PM
  • 7
    I think this is an awesome article..This is exactly what I do! I have rheumatoid Arthritis and doing interval with incline training on treadmill is one way I can modify to meet my specific needs. I work in 20 to 30 minutes blocks. - 1/28/2011   2:06:59 PM
  • 6
    Planning shorter workouts is a great idea. As long as you can get in a workout, you're better off than not working out at all. And sometimes just getting in a shorter workout spontaneously leads to extending it into a longer workout. Some mornings, when I have a longer run planned, but I just don't feel like running, I tell myself that it's okay to only do a short run. More often than not, that short run turns back into a longer run mid-workout. - 1/28/2011   12:46:21 PM
  • 5
    I'm a big fan of the short work out and circuit training. Does not even seem like you have worked out 20 min and you start seeing how much you are getting stronger in days not weeks or months. - 1/28/2011   12:02:10 PM
    I definitely can relate to this article. I used to think I had to stay at the gym for at least an hour to do any good...which is why I'm back to where I started. It was the all-or-nothing mentality. This time around, I think more about little things I can do in my daily routine, like parking further away from work or the grocery store. I am looking forward to getting back to the gym, but this time, I'll go with more realistic goals in mind. I'll start with 30 minutes each time, and if I feel like going longer, then great! At least, it will be a choice, rather than an obligation. - 1/28/2011   11:53:27 AM
  • 3
    I think short workouts work better for us older people. - 1/28/2011   11:35:48 AM
  • 2
    I started working out for 20-30 minutes in the morning before work..and its actually been the only thing that has worked. Its harder to get to the gym at night. I am going to try the weightlifting trick (lower it slower)...thanks - 1/28/2011   11:33:42 AM
    I started Spark after already having a good base for my exercise routine.

    However, now I tend to fall off the wagon when I cut back my exercise (opposite of this article). I guess I'm not you're average Sparker. It drove me nuts to have to cut back my miles to transition into my Vibrams after marathon training for 8 months. I'm just getting back into running again, and to me if I don't do at least 3 miles I don't feel like my workout is worth it.

    I know for beginners it is important to start slow, but I've made this my lifestyle and it has been a 10 year transition.

    To me, it is punishment to workout and not feel like I worked out. - 1/28/2011   11:33:21 AM

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