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5 Surprising Health Benefits From 5 Minutes of High-Intensity Exercise

Research shows short bursts of intense effort have physical and mental advantages

  • Woman in a field, Man jogging on urban river path, combo, Mini workouts
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    Why Mini Workouts Work

    En español l So they're never going to completely replace the time-tested benefits of traditional workouts, but brief bursts of exercise followed by short rest periods — sometimes called high-intensity interval training (HIIT) — yield some startling perks, new research shows. "Interval training can be uncomfortable but you get some great benefits," including a stronger heart and less body fat, says Martin Gibala, Ph.D., chair of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario. Not sure where to start? Gibala suggests road-testing the idea with your current fitness routine. "Just push a little harder than usual and get out of your comfort zone for a minute, then back off," he says. Here's how mini power workouts can boost your health.

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    A Healthier Heart

    "With high-intensity exercise, the heart becomes a better, stronger pump and the blood vessels and arteries get more elastic, allowing blood and oxygen to flow easier," says Gibala. That helps protect against heart attack and stroke. In a McMaster University study, patients who did several 30-second all-out sprints, interspersed with short rest periods, three days a week, improved the function and structure of their blood vessels as much as patients who exercised for 40 to 60 minutes at a shot. And in research from Liverpool John Moores University in England, high-intensity interval training reduced the stiffness of blood vessels and the aorta, the same amount as slower, continuous exercise.

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    Lower Blood Pressure

    In a study from Abertay University in Scotland, just two sessions a week of a high-intensity regimen was enough to lower blood pressure by an average of 9 percent. Exercise sessions consisted of "sprints"— six seconds of all-out pedaling on a stationary bike — followed by a minute of rest. Over the course of the study, the participants, all of whom were over age 60, worked up to 10 sprint-rest cycles per workout, says lead investigator John Babraj, Ph.D., a lecturer in sports and exercise science.

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    More 'Get Up and Go'

    Seniors in the same study improved their aerobic capacity and had more energy to do things. "People reported that they felt more active as a result of doing the exercise," Babraj says. "They would take the dog for a longer walk or choose to walk up the hill that they used to avoid. The improvement in their perception around what they were capable of doing and how well they feel is as important as the actual improvements that we measured."

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  • SLIDESHOW: 5 Surprising Benefits of 5 Minutes of Exercise
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    Less Risk for Diabetes

    Norwegian researchers assigned a group of people 50 and over with metabolic syndrome — a constellation of symptoms that often precedes diabetes and heart disease — to either a high-intensity treadmill workout or a longer continuous workout. After 16 weeks, 46 percent of those who got the high-intensity training no longer met the criteria for metabolic syndrome, compared to 37 percent of those working out the traditional way. And in a study from Abertay, overweight people at risk for diabetes who did a HIIT-type workout significantly improved their insulin sensitivity — the ability to clear glucose from the bloodstream.

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    Lower Body Fat

    Research shows high-intensity interval training can increase muscle mass, reduce fat — including the more dangerous "visceral" fat that surrounds internal organs — and reduce weight overall, according to a recent review of studies in the Journal of Obesity. In data from the University of New South Wales in Australia, weight, abdominal and trunk fat, and total fat mass all dropped in men engaged in a HIIT program for 12 weeks. They also experienced a 17 percent drop in visceral fat. Women performing a similar routine for 15 weeks had sizable reductions in total body fat and subcutaneous fat — the rolls of fat you can pinch between your fingers — on their legs and trunk.

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