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No matter who you are, life is busy. Few of us have the time to get to the gym in order to fulfill the minimum weekly exercise recommendations of:
In order to help people become more active, an interesting exercise trend that has developed in the past few years is known as the “microworkout”. Microworkouts are short bursts of activity sprinkled throughout the day.
In this article, we will examine how microworkouts compare to more traditional exercise routines.*
*For those looking for a quick summary: the microworkout is a great tool that may improve a variety of health indicators such as insulin regulation and oxygen uptake. However, these workouts are unlikely to improve performance to the same degree that a traditional training regimen (a single longer session per day) would.
Before we dive into the topic at hand, we need to clear up a few terms. Specifically, we should briefly discuss what we mean by “exercise”. After all, both a yoga class and a marathon are forms of “exercise”, but they differ significantly within that broad category. Also, each of these forms of exercise helps to accomplish very different goals, so it is hard to say which is “best”.
In general, we can categorize exercise into either flexibility exercise, cardiorespiratory exercise, or resistance exercise.
Flexibility exercise is composed of movements that take our joints through a range of motion with the goal of stretching our muscular tissues. Yoga is a common example of flexibility exercise.
Cardiorespiratory exercise includes movements in which our heart and lungs need to work to supply oxygen to our working muscles. Typically, these movements utilize large muscle groups being taken through repetitive motion for an extended period of time. Examples include running, biking, and swimming.
Resistance exercise refers to movements that aim to increase muscular endurance or muscular strength. Lifting weights and performing calisthenic-type movements, such as pushups, are examples of resistance exercise.
Two concepts that often get conflated are “good health” and “optimal performance”. A 50-year-old man who achieves the minimum exercise requirements is probably in good health. However, this same man may not be ready to set a new world record shot put throw.
Good health can include basic measurements such as blood pressure, cholesterol level, and even subjective reports such as “I feel great!”
Optimal performance, on the other hand, would encompass other areas of fitness such as power production, speed, and skill.
For this reason, it’s critical that we never get tripped up by these terms. A person can be very healthy, but may not be training in such a way as to significantly improve performance.
As was mentioned in the introduction, one should use three different lenses when attempting to measure the efficacy of a given exercise plan:
Let’s take a look at the comparison between microworkouts and traditional workouts with regard to each of these points.
Regarding general health, we have identified some relative minimums for each of the three types of exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is one of the major bodies responsible for providing guidance on this topic. Their recommendations are as follows:
Can a person achieve these levels of exercise with microworkouts? Potentially. As long as their exercise efforts add up to the minimums described above, they’ve met the accepted requirements for good health.
The evidence that we have for microworkouts is promising, at least in terms of muscular strength benefits. This study found that performing microworkouts improved both quality of life and strength. Unfortunately, the study participants did not demonstrate improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness.
All in all, traditional workout sessions are generally considered to be better for meeting the minimum exercise requirements. Also, traditional workouts tend to allow for more performance-related improvements.
One way to think about microworkouts is that they are basically an extended workout with much longer rest intervals than normal (e.g. 15 minutes between sets).
Depending on the goal, optimizing rest time is critical. For example, this review from 2008 found that if you want to increase power and strength, you should have longer rest intervals (2–5 minutes) between sets as the key factor for improvement is the total amount of reps you perform. On the other hand, if you want to increase muscle size and muscular endurance, you’ll need shorter rest intervals (between 30 and 90 seconds) between sets.
What this indicates is that microworkouts may help with power and strength but are not going to make you look like The Rock or help you set a new world record for the Marathon.
Want to live until you’re 120? It’s easy: just get a blood transfusion from an energetic teenager every day….or perhaps look at the study from Saint-Maurice and colleagues where they found that regular exercise is important for reducing all-cause mortality. Interestingly they found no difference in the effect from “bouted moderate-to-vigorous physical activity” (similar to microworkouts) compared to longer workouts. It’s worth noting that the exercise bouts they studied were on the longer end of a microworkout (10-minute sets) so it’s possible that doing 30x1-minute microworkouts might not have the same longevity enhancing effects as 3x10-minute bouts.
With certain disease processes, such as diabetes mellitus, glucose monitoring is essential. Holmstrup et al, in a study from 2014, found that short-duration exercise sessions throughout the day improved glucose and insulin levels more than a single, longer exercise bout. This speaks to the importance of reducing sedentary behavior throughout the day and provides compelling evidence for the use of microworkouts.
Furthermore, another study from 2018 found no difference between blood glucose and insulin levels when comparing short-duration exercise against longer sessions. Additionally, this study demonstrated no difference between participants’ lipid levels and blood pressure measurements across exercise groups.
Even back in the 1990s, long before the widespread interest in microworkouts developed, researchers made some interesting findings with regard to short periods of exercise. Specifically, DeBusk et al found that “…multiple short bouts of moderate-intensity exercise training significantly increase peak oxygen uptake”. Again these bouts were 10 minutes long so you probably won’t get the same effect from much shorter microworkouts.
Many scientists and researchers would be horrified by what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway: anecdotal evidence matters.
For a variety of reasons, we can’t always perform large, well-designed studies. Therefore, we often have to rely on individual responses that we are seeing in a single person or a small group. Of course, this isn’t to say that we should disregard safety, common sense, and large-scale studies. These are very important and always bear consideration. However, if we’re seeing a ton of anecdotes about an effective new workout, we shouldn’t just discount it because there aren’t great studies backing it.
In terms of microworkouts, we don’t have a ton of research to rely on. However, we do have some anecdotes. Many individuals who are too busy to complete long workouts throughout the day are reporting great success by sneaking in some push-ups, a short walk, or burpees when they can.
Remember: always be safe, listen to your doctor, and use your best judgment, but never count out a potential solution to an issue just because it doesn’t have a large study backing it.
I saved this one for last, but I actually tend to think this is one of the most important things for both clients and health professionals to keep in mind.
To me, goals should always drive exercise plans. If an individual wants to look like Dwayne “The Rock’’ Johnson, microworkouts probably won’t get them there. This person will likely need to make some extreme changes to their diet and exercise plan and commit to a new lifestyle for years before achieving this aesthetic goal.
However, if a person is new to exercise and just wants to find a way to increase their energy expenditure throughout the day or improve their health, microworkouts offer the perfect solution. They provide bite-sized bouts of exercise that cumulatively add up to a great physiologic benefit.
So, knowing that the preponderance of evidence suggests that we perform 150 total minutes of cardiorespiratory exercise for good health (along with the recommendations for resistance training and flexibility exercise), are microworkouts effective? Additionally, are microworkouts going to help an individual improve performance enough to go to the next Olympics?
As far as performance is concerned, you’ll likely be better off with a more traditional, structured workout program. This isn’t to say that microworkouts won’t help you achieve your performance goals, but you will probably get there faster with a traditional training regimen.
In terms of general health, microworkouts are an excellent choice. Do they have tons of meta-analyses of randomized controlled studies backing them? No. But there is a lot of anecdotal evidence (as well as small-scale studies providing evidence) for this type of exercise, and microworkouts are perfect for busy individuals who can’t commit many consecutive hours toward exercise each week.
If you’re wondering exactly how to go about incorporating microworkouts into your daily routine, don’t overthink it! You can do something as simple as setting a recurring 15-minute timer on your phone to remind you to get up and move throughout the day.
However, if your schedule doesn’t permit you to take breaks every 15 minutes, you may instead decide to go by task completion. For example, once you finish one task, drop down and do push-ups for 30 seconds. Once you finish your next task, hit those legs with some squats. After task number three, it’s burpee time!
Alternatively, you can use an app such as Focus Bear which will help you stay on track in completing your microworkouts throughout the day.
In the end, every tiny bit of exercise you perform is better than being sedentary. So, if microworkouts seem like the perfect solution for your exercise needs, try out one of the suggestions above and see what you think!
This blog post was first published in Medium
If you’re like me and your plans to wake up early to exercise before your 9-5 job never stick and neither do the plans to exercise after work, then let’s find ways to get physical AT the job.