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The truth about the headlines touting one-minute workouts

I’m a big proponent of short, high-intensity exercise programs. I love four-minute Tabatas, I enjoy five-minute circuit workouts, and I’ll always proclaim from the rooftops, “Some exercise is better than no exercise!”

But when headlines scream (I’m paraphrasing), “1 Minute of Exercise is as Good as 45 Minutes!” the collective public (particularly the internet-based public) starts to get things twisted, and I start to develop a nervous twitch.

The thing is, I won’t even argue with the research that the latest, attention-grabbing headlines are based on. The research is good. A 2016 study out of McMaster University — a school known for its breadth and depth of scientific study in the field of exercise science — compared the results of a three-month, moderate-intensity workout program to a three-month, high intensity, low-volume program. At the end of the three months, both programs saw similar gains in the physical fitness of study participants, despite the different methods of training.

There’s nothing wrong with the research. What’s wrong is how this research is then shared with the world.

I’m sorry, but if you show me a headline that says, “1 Minute of Exercise Is All You Need!” I’m going to show you thousands of people who read the headline and ignore the article, then sit on the couch 23 hours and 59 minutes a day, only to be surprised when their one minute of daily exercise doesn’t deliver the results of their dreams.

More: 5-minute workouts even the busiest women can do

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting everyone is stupid or lazy, but headlines like that are eye-catching, and humans are dreamers who want to believe that they can really get results with little to no effort. I mean, who wouldn’t want that? I’d be tempted to fall into the headline trap, too.

To truly understand the implications of a particular study, though, you need to view it in the context of what, specifically, the study looked at and how that study fits into a greater body of knowledge. You need to see the study for its strengths and weaknesses, and you need view all the facts, all the context.

But, discussing all the facts isn’t sexy, which is why they’re so rarely presented. I’m going to break that trend.

What the “1-minute of exercise” research actually looked at

McMaster University recruited 25 de-conditioned college-age men to participate in the study. These men were split into three groups, which breaks down to roughly eight people per group. The control group maintained their pre-study, sedentary lifestyle, while the other two groups participated in regimented workout programs monitored by the research lab.

The “sprint-interval” training (SIT) group cycled three times per week in the three-month study period. Each exercise session lasted 10 total minutes, which involved a two-minute warmup, a three-minute cool down at the end and three 20-second all-out sprints with two minutes of active rest (continuous, lower-intensity cycling) between sprints.

The moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) group cycled in the lab three times per week throughout the three-month study, cycling for 50 total minutes. The 50-minute workout was broken up into a two-minute warmup, a 45-minute steady-state workout and a three-minute cool down.

More: Leg exercises you can do from an office chair

What the research actually tells us

To be blunt, while incredibly significant and important within the broader view of the field of exercise science, this research actually tells us very little. It certainly can’t provide any conclusive evidence about “1 minute of exercise” being the perfect solution for time-constrained Americans struggling to fit exercise into their lives.

Frankly, the whole “1-minute of exercise” thing is a straight-up misrepresentation of facts. The SIT group in this study didn’t exercise for only one minute — they exercised for 10 minutes while participating in a specific interval-training routine. The fact that the total time of vigorous exercise added up to just one minute of work is certainly interesting, and definitely worth further study and investigation, but you can’t extrapolate from the study’s 10-minute interval series that a single minute of exercise is all you need to get results.

Sorry, not sorry.

What the study can tell us is that, once again, high-intensity interval training is an effective means for reducing exercise time while providing significant fitness-related results. It confirms (again) that interval training and steady-state moderate-intensity training each provide health-related benefits. It confirms (again) that it’s possible to get fit in less time, if you’re willing to really push yourself during your workouts.

And therein lies part of the problem: Most people don’t like pushing themselves as hard as study participants are forced to push themselves during all-out, researcher-supervised, high-intensity interval training (HIIT). It’s almost impossible to draw hard-and-fast conclusions about real-world results when most people in the real world will never hit the intensity levels that study participants hit during in-lab research.

At the end of the day, the decision is up to you: To get similar health- and fitness-related benefits, you can either exercise at a lower intensity for a longer period of time, or at a higher intensity for a shorter period of time. I just wouldn’t cut my workout down to 60 seconds just yet. If you’re short on time, aim for two to three 10-minute bouts of higher intensity exercise interspersed throughout the day. Bonus points if you incorporate interval training.

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