Fit It In: Mini Workouts Are a Great Option When You’re Crunched for Time
Accumulated exercise over the course of the day is as effective as one continuous session. Don’t take our word for it — trust the science.
If you’re looking for a way to fit exercise into your day but struggle to find a 30–45-minute block of time, consider mini workouts. These shorter sessions take the place of one longer workout by breaking up a continuous routine into several smaller ones.
You may wonder whether multiple mini workouts are just as beneficial as one lone session, and the answer is: YES! Studies show you don’t have to get all your exercise at once for it to make a big difference in your life. Moving throughout the day is just as effective.
How much exercise is enough?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise — or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise — weekly.
The CDC also stresses the importance of strength training at least 2 days per week. These sessions should focus on total-body workouts targeting the major muscle groups.
To meet these guidelines, many people follow a fitness routine that includes one longer workout session per day. However, you can also break up a longer session into several mini workouts to achieve the same benefits and get the recommended number of minutes.
Benefits of mini workouts
According to John Gallucci, Jr., DPT, CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy, the benefits of shorter, multiple exercise sessions is that they provide increased flexibility in your daily schedule and allow you to prioritize your health while juggling family, work, and friend obligations.
In other words, performing bite-size workouts throughout the day can make it easier to adhere to an exercise program and experience the many benefits of regular exercise.
Here are 8 of the top benefits of accumulated exercise.
Improve your overall health
Multiple studies have shown that accumulating exercise in short bouts of at least 10 minutes of activity over the course of the day produces similar effects on a range of health-related outcomes, compared with performing the same exercise in one continuous bout.
Specifically, one review of 19 studies involving 1,080 participants found no differences between accumulated and continuous exercise for blood pressure or cardiorespiratory outcomes.
What’s more, the authors noted similar benefits for blood fat, insulin, and glucose levels between the two groups.
Overall, they concluded that adults are likely to experience similar health benefits from accumulating shorter periods of activity throughout the day as they would performing a single bout of exercise.
Easier to fit into the day
Glenn Gaesser, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Arizona State University, says the number one reason for not exercising regularly is a perceived lack of time.
“This is because most people think of exercise as something that requires a lot of effort, time, and a change of clothing. Mini workouts throughout the day may appeal to people who just don’t have the time or inclination for one big workout,” he says.
According to Gaesser, mini workouts could consist of 5–10 minutes of walking or resistance exercises that do not require a change of clothes.
Research has shown that accumulating physical activity throughout the day is just as effective for improving health and fitness as doing one workout, provided that an equal amount of time is devoted to each.
May improve exercise adherence
Committing to an exercise program over time requires patience, persistence, and a whole lot of motivation.
Unfortunately, many people stop working out before they even get a chance to reap the benefits of exercise. The good news is shorter sessions throughout the day may make it easier to stick to a routine.
An older study found that multiple short bouts of activity — around 10 minutes each — are at least as effective at facilitating exercise adherence and weight loss as a single long bout.
Boost your brain health and mood
“Shorter duration workouts save people time, [allow people to] fit multiple bouts of exercise into a single day, and take advantage of the short-term neurological, physical, and psychological benefits of exercise,” says Ryan Glatt, FAFS, BSc, CPT, NBWHC, psychometrist, personal trainer, and brain health coach for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
In fact, Glatt says performing single bouts of exercise (as short as 3–5 minutes) throughout the day can elicit transient benefits to the brain and mood.
In fact, one study found that participants who performed a 10-minute bout of brisk walking and meditation experienced improved mood, compared to an inactive control group.
Can help lower blood pressure
Gaesser and his colleagues conducted a small study to compare the effects of short aerobic exercise sessions and continuous exercise on 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure.
They found that doing three 10-minute walks during the day (morning, midday, late afternoon) lowered blood pressure more than doing one 30-minute walk in prehypertensive individuals.
Make it easier to exercise at higher intensities
Cranking out a high intensity for a long time is not an easy feat — even for seasoned athletes.
That’s why shorter exercise sessions appeal to fitness fans of all levels. Decreasing the time allows you to exercise at higher intensities that are not easily or comfortably sustained for longer periods of time.
Reduce the stress of working out
“Incorporating shorter workouts into your day can reduce the stress response or fear that some people have towards a workout session,” says Gallucci.
When looked at fitness from this perspective, shortened workouts just become a part of your day rather than a stressful session at the gym.
Can help you reach your fitness goals
According to Christine Ogbonna, DPT, a physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Performance Therapy Center, mini workouts help busy people reach their fitness goals.
“Shorter workouts allow people with busy schedules to focus on what they can perform in small controlled bouts throughout the day without feeling overwhelmed by committing a huge amount of time to work out,” she says.
Plus, mini workouts are easy to schedule and more sustainable to perform and commit to long term, and they allow for more focused, intensive, and intentional exercise to occur, especially if you’re easily distracted.
Drawbacks of mini workouts
“There are really no drawbacks in terms of health benefits,” says Gaesser.
Gallucci says the main drawback is that you will have to warm up and cool down before and after each workout throughout the day to prevent injury. Additionally, he says, building up your endurance may be difficult over time due to the time limit placed on workout length.
It’s unclear whether multiple short bouts of exercise burn enough calories to make a significant impact on weight loss, but we know that high intensity intervals burn more calories than continuous, steady exercise.
Plus, some older research suggests that even high intensity intermittent exercise is better for fat loss.
One very small recent study examined Tabata intervals done successively versus intermittently. Researchers found that the effects on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and cardiovascular fitness were more or less the same.
Regardless of the calories burned, for many people who avoid exercise because of a lack of time, shorter sessions are better than no exercise at all.
In fact, Gaesser says they’ll keep you healthy and living longer. It’s perhaps better to focus on the endgame, and remember that making fitness a lifestyle habit is the best approach of all — no matter how you do so.
Tips for fitting in mini workouts
If you’re ready to give mini workouts a try but not sure how to make them work, here are some ideas for accumulating a balance of strength, cardio, and mobility exercises throughout the day.
According to Ogbonna, the best way to accumulate a balance of strength, cardio, and mobility exercises throughout the day is to plan.
“Find a mode of exercise you thoroughly enjoy that will be a relief for you at certain times throughout the day, then, set up your office space, home, even your car to accommodate the exercises you need to perform,” she says.
Schedule your workouts
Glatt says it can be helpful to schedule these mini workouts or “movement snacks,” as he likes to call them, throughout the day or simply perform them as you have time. For some, setting a calendar reminder is helpful, so you’ll be alerted when it’s time to get up and move.
Mix it up
“If you’re breaking up your workouts into multiple, short sessions, try to focus on a different body part and type of exercise each time,” says Gallucci.
For example, the first workout can focus on your core and cardio. The second bout can focus on your arms and strength, and the third can focus on your back and flexibility.
“It may not feel like much while you are doing it; however, these small workouts will prove to be just as effective over time,” he says.
Break it up
If you’re already exercising and would like to try mini workouts, take a standard 30–45-minute workout and break it up into 2–3 mini sessions.
For example, instead of doing a 30–45-minute cardio and resistance training session after work, take a 15-minute walk in the morning, do a 15-minute light yoga or stretching session at lunch, and then a 15-minute high intensity interval training (HIIT) routine after work.
You can also break up a 30-minute session into 10, 3-minute bursts of activity throughout the day.
This is a great way to encourage movement, any way you can. For example, knock out 3 minutes of squats while your child is on the playground, or store a set of dumbbells under your desk and perform 3 sets of 1 exercise at a time.
Follow a format
For cardiovascular and strengthening benefits, Ogbonna recommends performing exercises in Tabata or HIIT style.
Here’s a format to follow:
- 5 exercises
- 2 minutes each exercise with a work-rest ratio of 1:1 (30 seconds on, 30 seconds off)
- depending on your fitness level, the work-rest ratio can be altered
To improve mobility and strength, Ogbonna says to challenge yourself with heavier weights focusing on proper form, as the exercises will be performed for shorter durations.
If 10 minutes is still tricky to fit in, consider shorter, bite-size workouts.
Here’s a format to follow for shorter bursts of exercise:
- Choose two to three exercises, such as bicep curls, shoulder presses, bodyweight squats, calf raises, lunges, or planks.
- Set your watch for 3 minutes and perform 30 seconds of one exercise, followed by 30 seconds of another. Alternate until the 3 minutes is up.
Short bursts of activity
Have a few minutes but not sure what to do?
Here are some ideas for very short mini workouts you can fit in while you’re on the phone, hanging around the house, taking a quick work break, standing on the sidelines at your child’s sports practice, or at the playground.
You can pick and choose from this list or add some movements of your own. Aim for 3 minutes of moving, 10 times a day.
- If you have stairs at home, perform 30 seconds of double stepups each time you walk by the stairs. Keep a tally of the number of sets you complete in a day.
- No stairs? No problem. Do 30 seconds of bodyweight lunges after each trip to the bathroom, while waiting for your coffee to brew, or when you get up from a seated position.
- At work, do 30 seconds of squats after climbing a flight of stairs. While on a conference call or during a break, set your watch for 3 minutes and do alternating sets of 30 seconds of squats followed by 30 seconds of calf raises.
- At the playground or sidelines, set your watch for 3 minutes and do alternating sets of 30 seconds of incline pushups on a bench, followed by 30 seconds of high knees. Or try 2–3 minutes of walking lunges.
- Store a set of dumbbells under your desk at work. While on the phone or during a break, do bicep curls for 30 seconds and shoulder presses for 30 seconds. If you have a sturdy chair, throw in a 30-second set of tricep dips. Aim for 3–5 minutes total.
10-minute mini workouts
For 10-minute blocks of time, try one of the following mini workouts.
Bodyweight circuit #1
- 10 bodyweight squats
- 10 pushups
- 20 jumping jacks
- 20-second plank
- 10 glute bridges
- 20 seconds of rest
- Repeat as many times as possible in 10 minutes
Bodyweight circuit #2
- 30 seconds bodyweight squats
- 30 seconds jumping jacks or high knees
- 30-second plank
- 30 seconds rest
- Repeat 4–5 times
Cardio and strength hill repeats
- Find a short hill.
- Walk or run to the top.
- Perform 10 bodyweight squats and 15 walking lunges.
- Walk down the hill.
- Repeat as many times as possible for 10–15 minutes.
Sample yoga routine
- Child’s Pose: 2–3 repetitions, hold for 20–30 seconds
- Cat-Cow: 10 repetitions
- Chair Pose: 10 repetitions
- Downward Dog: 8 repetitions
- Repeat and do as many rounds as possible for 10 minutes.
The bottom line
Finding time to exercise can be a lot easier when you break up one longer session into bite-size workouts.
Performing shorter bouts of movement several times a day allows you to accumulate the time needed to meet CDC’s minimum physical activity guidelines. Plus, mini workouts can provide benefits similar to those offered by one long session.
We’re all busy and know that fitting in fitness is important. Rest assured that all the time you spend moving your body adds up, and you’ll reap the benefits of exercise even when you do just a little at a time. Who knows, you might find yourself developing a habit in no time.