Physical exercise provides innumerable health benefits, but one of the most common reasons people cite for not working out is that they simply don’t have enough time. What if you could divide a 30-minute workout by 3 and still see an effect on your health and blood pressure?
That’s exactly what a new study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests.
Researchers at Arizona State University’s Healthy Lifestyle Research Center studied eleven healthy, pre-hypertensive adults – individuals who were sedentary non-smokers with no history of hypertension or cardiovascular disease, and who had an average blood pressure of 120-139/80-89.
Participants were randomly assigned to engage in three different physical activity levels, once a week for three weeks.
One activity required volunteers to walk briskly on a treadmill at an intensity equaling about 75% of their maximum heart rate three times a day, 10 minutes each time. The workouts were spread out across the day at 9:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 5:30 p.m.
The second activity involved volunteers completing one 30-minute supervised session of physical activity (brisk walking at the same heart rate) during the middle of the day, at about 12:30.
The third activity, also known as the “control,” required the participants to refrain from physical activity.
Throughout the course of the study, participants’ blood pressure was monitored daily. Analysis of the results showed that exercise was helpful in controlling blood pressure in both exercise groups, but breaking up the exercise into three short sessions was significantly more effective than the single half-hour session.
Systolic blood pressure (the upper half of a blood pressure reading which indicates pressure while the heart is beating) was lowered at all times of the day until the next morning for those engaging in three short workouts; for those who exercised for half an hour at the middle of the day, it was only reduced during the afternoon and evening. Diastolic pressure (the lower half of a blood pressure reading which indicates pressure while the heart is at rest) did not change.
Short spurts of exercise also resulted in a lower incidence of blood pressure spikes above 140/90.
This seems to support other research that short, cumulative workouts can be extremely beneficial for a number of health conditions. Studies have found that repeated spurts of running or other exercise for periods as short as five minutes at a time reduced the risks of obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure in youth just as well as longer workouts did.
The study authors note that the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (JNC 7) recommends lifestyle modification as the first step in treating prehypertension or preventing the development of hypertension. They stress that incorporating three 10-min workouts into the day is a “viable therapeutic option” that can not only reduce blood pressure but also reduce the risk of death from stroke, cardiovascular disease, and other health conditions.
While the research is promising, short workouts are only a small start to a healthier lifestyle. “You’ll be healthier [but] you won’t be an athlete,” they caution.
The Bottom Line
It seems as though researchers are leaving us no opportunities for excuses. Ten-minutes a day, three times a day is a program even the busiest of us can manage.
According to the 2010 National Health Interview Survey conducted by the CDC, less than 35% of adults engaged in regular physical activity, and less than 50% met the 2008 guidelines for aerobic activity.
Getting more adults – especially women, adolescents, and children – moving is the goal. If you’re not already exercising, it can be hard getting started. You may think that you need to engage in a lengthy, difficult program, but this study demonstrates that making small changes can bring about positive change. In addition, shorter exercise regimens are more likely to be continued over the long-term.
Health officials recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous intensity aerobic activity. If you break that down, that’s just 20 minutes a day. If breaking up physical activity into 10-minute bouts makes it easier, this is a step in the right direction.
Children should be active for at least an hour a day. Dividing that throughout the day can help them burn off extra energy and help maintain parents’ sanity.
While there are many ways to incorporate exercise into our daily routine, something simple, flexible, and cost effective is to head out the door and go for a walk. Encourage a friend or spouse to join you, or take the dog; it will make the time go by that much faster. By committing to exercising together, we force ourselves to actually do it. And when you’re in good company, before you know it, your workout is done!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.