You don't have to sweat for an hour to get the exercise you need. A couple of micro workouts throughout your day—whether 10 seconds or 10 minutes long—can really add up, and be just as effective. Slip in these small moves, and you'll see big benefits.

By Cotton Codinha
July 06, 2021
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Spare time has a funny way of dissolving when you intend to spend it exercising. Open one email, and you can find yourself typing away 15 replies later without having so much as wrestled into a sports bra. Fitting in a full daily workout can be hard—some might say impossible. But the good news is it may also be optional. "There used to be this notion that you had to exercise for prolonged periods of time to get results," says Neha Gothe, PhD, director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Exercise Psychology Lab. "And 10 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's physical-activity guidelines clearly stated you had to exercise at least 10 minutes to benefit. Then three years ago, they published new ones saying it could be a minute: Any and all exercise is good for you."

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Credit: Mauricio Alejo

There's scads of research backing this up. Among the latest, a University of Texas at Austin study published in December 2020 found that a workout with just four seconds of intense pedaling, repeated in intervals over 15 minutes, significantly upped stationary bikers' cardio fitness and muscle mass when they did it three times a week for eight weeks. But you can go even more micro: Martin Gibala, a kinesiology professor at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, raves about exercise snacking: "It's the idea of spreading it through the day. A few flights of stairs in the morning, again at lunch, and again later can have real benefits." Literal steps like that—as well as the scenarios ahead—will invigorate you in almost no time. Check with your doctor before trying something new, then go small.

You Have Two Minutes—or Less

Remember, you don't schedule "snacks;" you just grab them. What researchers like Dr. Gothe refer to as "lifestyle physical activities"—household jobs like laundry and vacuuming—very much count. To fully tap their benefits, amp them up. Standing at your desk or behind a counter? Do some calf raises, suggests Alexa Aftias, founding trainer of the fitness app Presence.fit. To maximize tooth-brushing or dishwashing, finish with a few countertop push-ups: Grip the edge, bending your elbows out to the sides, and squeeze your abs and glutes; for a challenge, plant your feet farther back.

When going up stairs, move briskly enough to feel the heat (picture Rocky Balboa), advises Kristina Jennings, a performance coach at Future, an app that matches users with remote personal trainers. If you can, repeat the flight once or, heck, twice. Another power move she likes (that's optimal for work-from-home): Keep a jump rope by your desk and do a rapid-fire, no-joke two-minute circuit a few times a day, alternating 20 seconds of jumping with 20 seconds of rest. And playing tag or chasing your kid or dog around offers more than cardio; it strengthens you in ways that help prevent injuries, too. "You have to change direction a lot, which is really good for balance and the structural stability of your legs," says Aftias.

You Can Sneak in Five or Six Minutes

Get familiar with a new acronym: EMOM. "It stands for 'every minute on the minute,'" says Melody Zoller, training and programming manager of the workout app Obé. "At the beginning of each minute you perform reps of an exercise, then recover before starting another at the top of the next minute." It's a twist on high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, an approach grounded in Dr. Gibala's research that alternates quick, intense, heart-rate-boosting moves (e.g., sprinting) with short periods of rest. Zoller likes to repeat these three for a six-minute blitz: 30 jumping jacks, 15 squats, and 10 plank shoulder taps (start in plank position, with your shoulders over your wrists and your torso, hips, and heels in line, then alternate tapping your left shoulder with your right hand, and vice versa, keeping your hips still; to modify it, lower onto your knees).

Or say you're a person who can't sit still when your song comes on. Pick four exercises to accompany it, suggests Aftias—her bang-for-the-buck favorites include jump squats, side planks, push-ups, and split jumps (alternating lunges with a hop in between)—and go full-tilt until the fade-out. And if a track makes you want to bust a move instead? Great. Zoller says honoring your inner backup dancer is solid cardio—just really get those arms and legs moving like nobody's watching.

You've Got 10 Whole Minutes

Pre-nosh, slip into your sneaks and join a quickie class—there are tons of good options. Many free apps, like Nike Training Club, offer 10-minute-or-under sessions at varying difficulty levels. A favorite of Aftias's on the Presence app is the 10 Min Anytime Anywhere Sculpt Workout, which hits on cardio, inner thighs, glutes, hamstrings, and obliques (for more to try, type in keywords like "HIIT" and "10 minutes" in any app). Or if you have a stationary bike, suggests Jennings, set your phone's timer for 10 minutes and hit it for 10 seconds of sprinting (with resistance that's doable but gets you breathing hard) followed by 20 seconds of recovery; repeat till you hear the buzz. (The same drill works on a treadmill.) Just stretch first: "I don't recommend sitting at your desk all day and then jumping right on the bike," Jennings says. Get blood flowing to your muscles with a foam roller for a few, then hop in the saddle.

Styling by Enrique Mendez Vede

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