Get Fit in Six Minutes a Week

When I saw Glenn Reynolds‘ post “Can you get fit in six minutes a week?” I was sure I had a candidate for an Asked and Answered post:  No.

But, dutifully clicking the link, I found a NYT health blog from Gretchen Reynolds (presumably, no relation) with the same title.

There was a time when the scientific literature suggested that the only way to achieve endurance was through endurance-type activities,” such as long runs or bike rides or, perhaps, six-hour swims, says Martin Gibala, PhD, chairman of the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. But ongoing research from Gibala’s lab is turning that idea on its head. In one of the group’s recent studies, Gibala and his colleagues had a group of college students, who were healthy but not athletes, ride a stationary bike at a sustainable pace for between 90 and 120 minutes. Another set of students grunted through a series of short, strenuous intervals: 20 to 30 seconds of cycling at the highest intensity the riders could stand. After resting for four minutes, the students pedaled hard again for another 20 to 30 seconds, repeating the cycle four to six times (depending on how much each person could stand), “for a total of two to three minutes of very intense exercise per training session,” Gibala says.

Each of the two groups exercised three times a week. After two weeks, both groups showed almost identical increases in their endurance (as measured in a stationary bicycle time trial), even though the one group had exercised for six to nine minutes per week, and the other about five hours. Additionally, molecular changes that signal increased fitness were evident equally in both groups. “The number and size of the mitochondria within the muscles” of the students had increased significantly, Gibala says, a change that, before this work, had been associated almost exclusively with prolonged endurance training.

Weight loss was similar, too.

Now, I’d quibble that the “six minutes a week” claim is misleading.  20 to 30 seconds plus four minutes of rest repeated four to six times three times a week is a hell of a lot more than six minutes of time devoted to exercise.  Six minutes of exercising, sure, but the rest time is still time being devoted to a fitness routine that has to come out of one’s schedule.

Really, though, that’s not the hard part.

There’s a catch, though. Those six minutes, if they’re to be effective, must hurt. “We describe it as an ‘all-out’ effort,” Gibala says. You’ll be straying “well out of your comfort zone.” That level of discomfort makes some activities better-suited to intense training than others. “We haven’t studied runners,” Gibala says. The pounding involved in repeated sprinting could lead to injuries, depending on a runner’s experience and stride mechanics. But cycling and swimming work well. “I’m a terrible swimmer,” Gibala says, “so every session for me is intense, just because my technique is so awful.”

In those halcyon days of yore, when I had the self-discipline to run several times a week, I far preferred logging, say, three miles at a decent pace than interval training.  Sprints are brutal.  Even more so if you do them on a hill.  Or up stairs.

Sadly, there are no fast, pain-free ways to get or stay in shape.   Which, oddly enough, is why so many of us don’t do it.

Which brings us back to the title question:  Can you get fit in six minutes a week? It depends on who “you” are.  For most of us, though, the answer is No.  We’re just not going to go through that much pain to do it with any regularity.  And, frankly, if we were willing to do that, we’d likely already be fit and exercising a lot more than six minutes a week.

Photo: Precision Nutrition

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jake P says:

    JJ, came across your site via a Melissa C. tweet. Interesting stuff here. I agree that the “6 minutes” positioning is somewhat misleading, and that most people have no idea how hard into the discomfort zone they’d have to push themselves. That’s why I personally like to use a heart-rate monitor–it makes it very clear where I am and how much headroom I have before I redline.

    I’m surprised they haven’t tested running, but I can attest from personal experience that short intervals work for rowing. And I’ve always wondered about those goofy $15,000 contraptions in the back of magazines…

  2. odograph says:

    This seems odd, because I spend about 40 minutes a week (out of 4 hours riding) that far out of comfort zone, trying to beat my friends up a hill on a mountain bike.

    Maybe you have to be there to know how much I am willing to punish myself in that situation, more than anyone in a lab, I think. I did wear a heartrate monitor on one of those hills once, and discovered that I “pegged” my hear rate at a maximum scarily above the theoritical one for my age.

    All that said, I’m putting on a little weight, as my body gets used to that. My guess this is a sports-change thing. Everyone knows that switching workouts shocks your body into more changes that doing the same hard one all the time.

  3. hcantrall says:

    This is the best thing I’ve found for fitness and there are affilates worldwide.

  4. Even so, 18 to 27 minutes a day towards getting fit, of which 16 to 24 minutes could be used for answering emails or the like would seem like an exercise regimen that more people could fit into their day. Unfortunately since the idea is simple (requiring no lengthy step by step guide book) and the equipment is straightforward and ubiquitous, I suspect that few people will come to know about this as there is little incentive to spread the word.

  5. Jake P says:

    Odograph, it’s very possible to have true max well above or below your theoretical max. It’s a matter of genetics, not how fit you are, and it will be different for running/biking/swimming. (At age 42, my max should be 178, but I top out at 188 when running, for example.) The Karvonen formula is one alternative to do it mathematically. There’s a bunch of info at this site, too. If you’re over 40, they recommend doing any of the testing under a doc’s supervision. I’m not a doctor, just someone who’s been using a heart rate monitor for years!

  6. Steve Plunk says:

    A two week study period is inadequate. Silly study.

  7. Eric Florack says:

    Interesting that this post should show up less than 48 hrs from your rather casual comment about getting out of shape, James.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Interesting that this post should show up less than 48 hrs from your rather casual comment about getting out of shape, James.

    Heh. Well, early 40s, sedentary vocation, and lack of PT will do that.

  9. J.W. Hamner says:

    A two week study period is inadequate. Silly study.

    I’ll trust peer review over random people on the internet any day, but it wouldn’t take much effort to look Gibala MJ up on PubMed (as I did) and discover that they have done longer intervention durations. However, your statement is by definition incorrect as the showed significant effects in two weeks, thus it was clearly adequate. Now, it would be quite valuable to see longer term changes… and in less healthy populations… which I would bet large sums of money that they are currently working on… but that doesn’t invalidate the work.

  10. Eric Florack says:

    Heh. Well, early 40s, sedentary vocation, and lack of PT will do that.

    :-/ Tell me about it.

  11. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    What hcantrall said. An interval (Tabata) workout is usually considered a warm-up at a Crossfit gym. They can definitely improve your endurance and metabolic conditioning, but they won’t do anything for your strength.

  12. odograph says:

    Hi Jake, there is a lot of interesting stuff written about those theoreticals. I was reading a rowing forum (I used to do the Concept II) and found that “why am I above max” was a common question. My take-away was that if you body can burn a lot of oxygen your heart will beat to keep up, within reason. It was interesting for me that I did have a solid max, and would “peg” at 192 in my late 30’s. I’m 50 now, and haven’t measured in a while. I go by feel (and recovery).

    I got beat up the hill by a co-worker last night. I want to lay off the korean spicy beef and leek soup as a pre-ride lunch (!!!) and go for a rematch.

  13. Triumph says:

    And, frankly, if we were willing to do that, we’d likely already be fit and exercising a lot more than six minutes a week.

    I’m not sure about this. At my gym you see these numbskulls (mostly fat broads) who waste their time WALKING on a treadmill. You see these dames every day and they still look saggy months later.

    I have a particular aversion towards them because they hog the machines for hours on end from people like me who actually want to work out.

  14. Steve Plunk says:

    J.W., Incomplete studies are of little value. This one shows markers that are consistent with fitness improvement but was there any real measure of fitness?

    To be honest my skepticism in science is at an all time high. Too many studies counter one another and scientists are often missing the forest for the trees. Now let’s throw in politics, grant money, lazy publications that publish most anything for a fee and we can see how untrustworthy science has become. No I’m not anti-science but rather pro good science.

    If we continue to chase after every new pronouncement coming from today’s scientific community we will be after our tails non stop.

  15. hcantrall says:

    I’m going to disagree there Jeffrey as we do olympic lifts twice a week and work with weights most days. I personally have gotten huge gains in strength in the last 6 months since I started Crossfit. I’m a 38 yr old female and I can deadlift 225 lbs, back squat 155 lbs and shoulder press 100 lbs. That’s pretty good for a girl.

  16. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    hcantrall: CrossFit program in general certainly will increase your strength. I myself did a 2x bodyweight back squat earlier this week. I never thought I’d do that a year ago.

    My point was that a round of Tabata air squats isn’t a big strength-improving regime. It improves endurance, metabolic/cardio ability, and mental focus.

  17. hcantrall says:

    Sorry Jeffrey, I misunderstood what you were saying, I thought you were saying that the Crossfit program was only Tabata. After re-reading your post, I see what you’re getting at =)