How to Get the Benefits of a 50-minute Workout in 10 Minutes

A Recent Study Provides a Great Workout for Those Who are Busy or Don’t Exercise

Of all the reasons that lead to chronic diseases, the highest risk factor that is within people’s control to alter is whether they exercise. And one of the most commonly cited reasons people give for not exercising is “lack of time.” I feel that pain. Do you? Would you like to reap key benefits of exercise in a fraction of the time? An academic paper making the rounds concludes that you can. Specifically, the study finds that you can realize the same key health benefits of a 50-minute workout in just 10 minutes.

A woman and man doing a sprint workout

In this post I will summarize the study and share my thoughts on the 10-minute workout.

Summary of the Study

Methodology

For the study, researchers gathered inactive men. They placed them into one of three groups. Here’s what each group of men did over the following 12 weeks:

  1. MICT (“moderate-intensity continuous training”) Group. They exercised three times per week for 50 minutes each time. Their workouts consisted of:
    • 2-minute warmup
    • 45 minutes of continuous cycling at ~70% maximum heart rate
    • 3-minute cooldown
  2. SIT (“sprint interval training”) Group. They also exercised three times per week, but for just 10 minutes each time. Their workouts consisted of:
    • 2-minute warmup
    • 20-second full sprint
    • 2-minutes light cycling
    • 20-second full sprint
    • 2-minutes light cycling
    • 20-second full sprint
    • 3-minute cooldown
  3. Control Group. They did a whole lot of nothing. Just kept on being inactive. They were the non-training control group.

Results

After 12 weeks, the control group showed . . . wait for it . . . virtually no improvement.

But where things get interesting is with the other two groups. The study examined the extent to which MICT and SIT improved “cardiometabolic health.” Cardiometabolic health involves your chances of having diabetes, heart disease, or stroke.

Interestingly, after 12 weeks of exercise, the MICT and SIT groups showed very similar improvement in these key markers of cardiometabolic health:

  • Peak oxygen uptake
  • Insulin sensitivity
  • Skeletal muscle mitochondrial content

Does that sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo?

What’s important to take away is this: for the health factors the study considered, the 10-minute SIT workout program provides the same health benefits as the 50-minute MICT program.

Thus, the research article concludes, “Twelve weeks of brief intense interval exercise improved indices of cardiometabolic health to the same extent as traditional endurance training in sedentary men, despite a five-fold lower exercise volume and time commitment.”

My Analysis: Why I Choose the 10-minute Workout

Let’s say you don’t work out. But you want to improve your cardiometabolic health. According to this study, you can do so and achieve similar results by doing either of the following:

  1. Option 1: Work out 3x per week for 50 minutes each time, while keeping your heart rate at 70% of its maximum almost the entire time.
  2. Option 2: Work out 3x per week for 10 minutes each time. 9 of those 10 minutes are easy. Only 1 of those 10 minutes is hard. And there’s good news even about that 1 hard minute. Namely, it is broken down into three, 20-second full-out sprints, each separated by 2 minutes of easy exercise.

Which option would you choose?

For me, the choice is easy. I choose the 10-minute workout. And for two reasons:

First, I kinda sorta like efficiency, in case you haven’t noticed. Accomplishing the same thing in 10 minutes that could otherwise be accomplished in 50 minutes is extremely enticing. It’s even better than the 80/20 rule, which I’ve written about before.

Now, if I thought the shorter workout were way harder than the longer one, I’d have to weigh that consideration.

But, in fact, I find the shorter workout to be easier. I’ve done this SIT workout several times now since reading the study. I find it much easier than keeping my heart rate at 70% of its maximum for 45 minutes.

Cautions and Caveats

For the above reasons, I will incorporate this 10-minute SIT exercise into my workout repertoire. That said, I’m not blind to some limitations of the study, such as:

  1. Too Few Participants. The study was only conducted on 27 men. I don’t know why the sample size was so small. I’d love to see a similar test conducted on a much larger and more diverse group, including women.
  2. Other Cardiometabolic Health Factors? The study’s conclusions are founded on several cardiometabolic health factors: peak oxygen uptake, insulin sensitivity index, and skeletal muscle mitochondrial content. But are there other important factors in cardiometabolic health? If so, did SIT improve those to the same extent that MICT did?
  3. Other Types of Health Factors? The study focuses on cardiometabolic health. But what about health more broadly understood? Take, for instance, strength, fat loss, or bone density. How are those factors affected by MICT vs. SIT? (I’d guess that neither exercise is especially good for burning fat, but I’d love to see that spelled out.)
  4. Other Non-Health Benefits? And what about benefits of exercise that are not strictly health benefits, like improved mood? How are those benefits impacted by MICT vs. SIT?

Conclusion

As the paper points out, poor cardiorespiratory fitness is a strong contributor to cardiovascular disease and death. The 10-minute SIT workout proposed in the paper improves such fitness as much as the 50-minute MICT workout for the health markers that the paper considers.

The above cautions and caveats notwithstanding, I therefore find real benefit in the SIT exercise. For many looking to improve cardiorespiratory health and reduce one’s risk of disease and death, this study provides a way to do so in one-fifth the time.

From one perspective, it boils down to this: you work out really hard for 3 minutes per week. It’s tough to imagine making a positive impact on something as important as our health in less time than that.

Question: Will you give this 10-minute workout a try? Why or why not? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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6 thoughts on “How to Get the Benefits of a 50-minute Workout in 10 Minutes

  1. So what happens when your body actually does need to work for 45 minutes straight? In the real world I don’t just hike for 10 minutes. I don’t just kayak for 10 minutes. These are functional fitness activities that I do on my weekends for fun, and I’m able to do them because I complete my endurance workouts during the week. If all you’re looking for is to maintain bodily health, then this might be the solution. I’m not trying to run a marathon, but I question whether this would enable me to stretch myself for a moderate, fun athletic activity when required.

    • Hmm. It’s a good question that the study doesn’t exactly answer. But if the 10-minute SIT routine is providing the same level of cardiorespiratory conditioning as the 50-minute MICT training, then on the surface it would seem to me that either workout would prepare a person equally well for a 45-minute hike or kayak.

      One reason I think that might be the case comes from a part of Tim Ferris’ book “The 4-Hour Body.” Ferris discusses the marathon preparation program advanced by conditioning expert Brian Mackenzie. Mackenzie successfully trains people to beat their previous marathon times while training for *much less* total time. And the main trick, as I recall, is sprint interval training.

    • Short answer: walking.

      Longer answer:

      First, the specific exercise in the study was cycling. But I’ve been doing it as a run instead.

      The sprint part of the exercise was done at approximately “500W.” The periods of time between the sprints, as well as both the warmup and cooldown, were done at approximately “50W.”

      Wikipedia describes a 50-watt activity as “very light effort.” It places a 50-watt activity in between walking at 2.5 mph and walking at 3.0 mph.