Which do you think is better for your health goals:  Shorter exercise sessions rmore often or fewer, longer workouts?

If you are moving ahead with your health and weight loss plan, you know that physical activity plays a huge, health-protective role in the big picture.  Yet when it comes time to plan your own workout routines, where to start?  There seem to be so many options, so much conflicting information!

My mission is to make all of this about diet and exercise as simple as possible.

Each year, research studies and analysis are released regarding how, when, what, and where to exercise.  And I read as many of them as I can so that you don’t have to.  :-).   This gives me a great overview of what works, what doesn’t work, and to what you need pay attention.  These studies always leave me asking more questions, such as: What is the previous condition of the subjects?  What were their dietary profiles?  How well was the study monitored?  The questions go on forever, yet the nature of research is that we test, test, and test again hoping to find indicators, commonalities, and eliminate a few hypothesis.

You can catch up with the most up-to-date guidelines about what you, as a healthy adult, need to be sure to include each week for fitness here:  The 4 pillars of the ideal workout schedule: What the research says.

Already read it?  Good job.

So, now come the questions:


  • where do I fit those workouts in with my busy schedule?
  • what if I don’t have time for a lengthy workout on enough days during the work to get the job done?
  • if I can only sneak in a few minutes here and there, is it going to do me any good anyway?


What the research says about many mini-workouts vs. fewer longer workouts:  Pick the one you’ll do!


Recent studies that have asked this question concur: when it comes to shorter workouts more often or fewer, longer workouts, the health benefits for you run neck and neck.

However, there’s now more information that is an absolute game-changer.   We now know that too much sitting is hazardous to your health. It is essential to break up hours of sedentary non-activity with short sessions of activity.  It doesn’t matter how uber-healthy your plant-based diet is, punctuating sedentary stretches of time with activity, or simply standing up for starters, is essential.

Results vary slightly from one study to the next, yet they come out even enough, by the time all is said and done, that all you need to concern yourself with is picking the workout you’ll do.

As a matter of fact, on one study , the short bout exercisers experienced a greater reduction in BMI than the long-bout exercisers! One 10-week study compared the effects of long bouts of brisk walking among 47 women between the ages of 38 and 61.  They were randomly assigned to either three 10-minute walks per day  or one 30 minute walk per day (long bouts) or no training (control).  The intensity of the walking was consistent between the groups, 70 – 80% of maximal heart rate. Subjects agreed not to make changes to their diet.

The sum of four skinfold thicknesses decreased in both walking groups but body mass and waist circumference decreased significantly only in short-bout walkers. . Thus short bouts of brisk walking resulted in similar improvements in fitness and were at least as effective in decreasing body fatness as long bouts of the same total duration. 

Did the reference to diet jump out for you too?  Subjects agreed not to make changes to their diet. 

Can you guess what I’m thinking about this little nugget?  Just because they agreed not to make changes in their diet doesn’t mean that even subtle changes didn’t occur.  Think about it.  From the Willpower Workout Series right here on Plant-Based Fitness, we know that even 5 minutes of exercise can be powerful medicine for both body AND mind.


The rapid effects of exercise on willpower


The willpower-strengthening benefits of physical activity are immediate:

  • exercise reduces cravings
  • exercise relieves stress
  • exercise enhances self-control
  • exercise makes your brain bigger and faster

Exercise does all of these by enhancing the activity of the pre-frontal cortex, otherwise known as willpower central.

Is it possible that the women who just plain moved it more often during the day were able to turn off their stress and turn on their ability to tap into their higher best interests with their diets, thus subtly making better choices through the day by eating more mindfully (which can moderate appetite) and making better choices?  We all know that after a brisk walk we are more likely to choose a a juicy, sweet orange over a slice of pie for a snack.

In most of these studies, however, there is no significant difference in results between long-bout and short-bout exercise groups.  Translation?  Even if you have to break your activity, exercise, and workouts into shorter bites throughout the day, given comparable exercise intensities, you benefit just as much as if you’d done longer workouts in improvements of fitness, health, and body composition.

And you get the bonus advantage of offsetting the inherent, deleterious effects of big chunks of sedentary time.

One study comparing intermittent exercise vs. longer bouts recorded results in more decreased hip measurement of those in the long bout group as compared to the short bout group.  However, upon close examination of the details, the study states that even though all participants were directed to walk at a “specific heart rate intensity”, the “Long Bout group participants completed more walking at a higher intensity than the Short Bout and control groups.  Well, that would make sense, wouldn’t it?  If everyone in the study walked the same amount of time overall, just in different segment lengths, and one group actually walked at a higher intensity, then during their walks they would necessarily burn more calories.  Same time, higher intensity, = higher energy requirement.

In other studies, you can observe the marked improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness and blood lipids when you shift out of sedentary into intermittently active.

Fifteen women (ave age a 18.8  years) were randomly assigned to a control  or stair climbing  groups. Stair climbing was progressively increased from one ascent a day in week 1 to five ascents a day in weeks 7 and 8. Training took place five days a week on a public access staircase (199 steps), at a stepping rate of 90 steps a minute. Each ascent took about two minutes to complete. Subjects agreed not to change their diet or lifestyle over the experimental period.


The study confirms that accumulating short bouts of stair climbing activity throughout the day can favorably alter important cardiovascular risk factors in previously sedentary young women. Such exercise may be easily incorporated into the working day and therefore should be promoted by public health guidelines.

This is exciting news!

You just took “I don’t have time” off the “why I don’t exercise” list.   That 30 +  minutes of purposeful activity you should be doing every day can, when needed, be chunked up into shorter  bites.  That’s a short walk, a spin on your exercise bike, or 2 Fit Quickies.   Then you can do those longer workouts and walks on the days you have more time.

How about you – shorter more often, or longer and fewer?  And are you making the effort to break up those sedentary chunks of time so you can take yourself off the ‘sedentarian’ list?  Please post your thoughts in comments.

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Murphy MH, Hardman AE. “Training effects of short and long bouts of brisk walking in sedentary women”. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998 Jan;30(1):152-7.

Boreham CA, Kennedy RA, Murphy MH, Tully M, Wallace WF, Young I.  “Training effects of short bouts of stair climbing on cardiorespiratory fitness, blood lipids, and homocysteine in sedentary young women”. Br J Sports Med. 2005 Sep;39(9):590-3.

Katrina M. Serwe, Ann M. Swartz, Teresa L. Hart, and Scott J. Strath. “Effectiveness of Long and Short Bout Walking on Increasing Physical Activity in Women” Journal of Women’s Health. February 2011, 20(2): 247-253. doi:10.1089/jwh.2010.2019.

Garber, Carol Ewing Ph.D., FACSM, et al.  “Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise”.  Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2011 – Volume 43 – Issue 7 – pp 1334-1359 doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318213fefb

Murphy M, Nevill A, Neville C, Biddle S, Hardman A. “Accumulating brisk walking for fitness, cardiovascular risk, and psychological health.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Sep;34(9):1468-74.


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