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1 to 2 Workouts a Week Shown to Be as Effective as Weekly Exercise

exercise benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • “Weekend warriors” may be as effective as those who exercise regularly in terms of reducing their risk of death from serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease
  • You may be surprised to learn of the significant health benefits you can glean from short amounts of physical activity
  • You should know that inactivity — most often characterized by prolonged sitting — promotes dozens of chronic diseases, even if you are otherwise considered fit

By Dr. Mercola

If you've been paying attention to your health for any length of time, you undoubtedly recognize exercise as a vital element of your personal wellness plan. Close to 80 percent of U.S. adults do not get enough exercise, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1

The survey found that just 20 percent of Americans are getting the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommended amount,2 which is:

  • At least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity
  • Strength-training activities twice a week

Having been an avid exerciser for more than 48 years, there's no doubt in my mind that a comprehensive fitness routine is essential to achieving optimal health. Fitness is a continuous journey, and your body and its needs are always changing. It is important that you listen to your body and adapt your exercise accordingly.

To ensure success, you must be willing to fine-tune, or completely alter, your routine whenever your body or your circumstances change. Early in a new year is a good time to evaluate the effectiveness of your current exercise program, as you seek to continually improve your health and sense of well-being.

Is Some Exercise Still Better Than No Exercise?

A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine3 suggests that even those who exercise occasionally can reduce their risk of dying prematurely nearly as much as those who exercise regularly.

According to Gary O'Donovan, Ph.D., who serves as a researcher in physical activity, sedentary behavior and health at Loughborough University in England, some exercise is better than no exercise:4

"The main point our study makes is that frequency of exercise is not important. There really doesn't seem to be any additional advantage to exercising regularly. If that helps people, then I'm happy."

The research centered on the self-reported exercise and overall health habits of 63,591 adults in England and Scotland from 1994 to 2012. The data was collected from two national health surveys. Participants were placed in 1 of 4 categories based on how much exercise they completed:

  • Inactive (no activity), 63 percent
  • Insufficiently active (less than recommended weekly activity), 11 percent
  • Regularly active (recommended weekly activity performed in three or more workouts), 22 percent
  • Weekend warrior (recommended weekly activity performed in one or two workouts), 4 percent

The primary goal of the study was to investigate a possible link between physical activity and mortality, including any potential links to death from cancer or heart disease.

The results reflect that those who exercised just one or two days a week lowered their risk of dying early by 30 to 34 percent, compared to people who did not exercise at all.

Those who exercised throughout the week lowered their risk by 35 percent, suggesting that some exercise is better than no exercise when it comes to cutting your risk of premature death.

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Can You Get Fit With 3 Minutes of Strenuous Exercise Per Week?

After running long distances for nearly 40 years, I began considering more efficient and effective forms of exercise as I got older. After I took up peak fitness high-intensity interval training (HIIT), I noticed dramatic changes to my physique, and my fitness level soared.

On multiple occasions, I have interviewed Dr. Doug McGuff on the subject of HIIT, which he's been doing personally for 37 years and training others on for 17 years. For more information, you can access the latest video interview.

As incredible as it sounds, a recent experiment5,6,7 showed that one single minute of strenuous activity within a 10-minute exercise session is as effective as working out for 45 minutes at a moderate pace. If you've put off exercise for lack of time, such findings may be nothing short of life-changing.

Twenty-five out-of-shape men in their 30s were recruited for the trial. Their aerobic fitness and insulin sensitivity were measured at the outset of the study. Biopsies of their muscles were also taken, to assess muscular function at the cellular level. The men were then randomly divided into three groups:

  • The control group maintained their current exercise regimen, which was virtually nonexistent
  • The second group engaged in a 45-minute-long endurance workout, riding at a moderate pace on a stationary bike
  • The third group was assigned to a HIIT program: a two-minute warm-up on a stationary bike, cycling all-out for 20 seconds and gentle pedaling for two minutes — repeating the intervals three times for a total workout of 10 minutes, just one minute of which was spent in strenuous exertion

The exercise groups completed three workout sessions per week for 12 weeks. As reported by The New York Times:8

"By the end of the study ... the endurance group had ridden for 27 hours, while the interval group had ridden for six hours, with only 36 minutes of that time being strenuous.

But when the scientists retested the men's aerobic fitness, muscles and blood-sugar control now, they found that the exercisers showed virtually identical gains ...

In both groups, endurance had increased by nearly 20 percent, insulin resistance likewise had improved significantly, and there were significant increases in the number and function of certain microscopic structures in the men's muscles that are related to energy production and oxygen consumption."

Your Risk for Chronic Disease Skyrockets If You're Inactive

Even though the benefits of HIIT are undeniable, HIIT may not be for everyone. The most important consideration when choosing exercise is to select a type and frequency that feels doable.

If you are realistic in your selections, there is a greater likelihood you will stick with it. Some exercise is certainly better than none. By doing nothing, you may become a magnet for chronic disease.

As you have heard many times before, the best way to fight disease is to get moving. Evidence shows that inactivity and lack of movement — most often characterized by prolonged sitting — promotes dozens of chronic diseases, even if you are otherwise very fit.9,10 In fact, sitting for too long, too often, is an independent risk factor for illness and premature death.

Dr. James Levine is co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative and author of the book,"Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It." According to Levine, there are at least 10,000 published studies that indicate sitting harms health, irrespective of other lifestyle habits, even for those following an otherwise beneficial exercise program.

An interactive body map published by The Conversation allows you to select a body part and/or disease to see the scientific support linking any given health problem and inactivity.11,12 For example, physical inactivity raises your risk of general ill health by 114 percent, your risk of Alzheimer's disease by 82 percent and your risk of depression by 150 percent.

It may seem shocking that chronic sitting has a mortality rate similar to smoking,13 and it increases your chances of lung cancer by more than 50 percent. Moreover, your risk for uterine and colon cancer also increases by 66 and 30 percent, respectively.

Fortunately, the remedy is simple: Avoid sitting and embrace the notion that the foundation of good health is regular movement. This means you should avoid sitting down as much as possible. Simply standing up produces many beneficial biological effects, so start there and add more activities. Because movement is crucial, set your goal to achieve at least 10,000 steps a day.