Associate professor Abbie Smith-Ryan’s research shows that short periods of exercise can yield relatively quick health improvements.

Detail photo of someone heading up stairwell in FedEx Global. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)
A High Intensity Interval Training workout on stairs is an option for trying a quicker exercise program. (photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Ten minutes of exercise on three days each week can make you feel better, give you more energy and make you healthier.

Sound like an infomercial or too good to be true?

Not according to Abbie Smith-Ryan, researcher and associate professor of exercise and sport science in the College of Arts & Sciences, who has seen amazing results in her research with folks who lost weight and improved their overall fitness by exercising just 30 minutes each week.

“We’re all very busy,” Smith-Ryan, who also researches nutrition, said. “We’re taking care of everyone else but ourselves, getting our work done and family responsibilities, so exercise and nutrition are the first things to go.” But research shows that exercise and nutrition make everything else work better, especially physically and mentally. “Once you prioritize exercise, it can become a habit with so many benefits such as more energy and productivity, better sleep and improved heart health and immunity,” she said.

How do you start?

Simplify things. Based on evidence from her research, Smith-Ryan suggests high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT, short periods of higher intensity exercise, usually yields relatively quick and sustainable results such as improved insulin blood glucose and cardiorespiratory fitness and reduced belly fat. Her team has seen great results with HIIT in many types of people. The people in their study exercised two-to-three times a week in 20-minute sessions. Each session consisted of ten bursts of one-minute activity riding a stationary bicycle followed by one minute of rest or easy activity.

That’s just 10 minutes of work three times two or three times a week.

The “intense” part of HIIT sounds scary. Don’t worry. Intensity is relative to your starting level of fitness. Smith-Ryan defines intensity as an exercise pace that prevents you from talking. “It’s okay for it to be a bit painful, like the kind of burning sensation you get in muscles that are working. That’s all good,” Smith-Ryan said. “For a person who’s never exercised, it’s knowing that a little discomfort for a minute is good. Sweating is highly encouraged as it’s very good at regulating blood pressure.” 

Safety first

Safety is always an issue, Smith-Ryan said, and her team recommends many ways to be safe.

In the lab, the team assesses the baseline fitness of research subjects. Others can use smart watches to determine and track heart rate, which is particularly good for people who take beta blockers or blood pressure medications that keep heart rate lower during exercise. Discussing HIIT with your doctor is a good idea. It also doesn’t have to be complicated; pick an intensity you can’t sustain and repeat that.

“Essentially, realize that you’re going to do something hard for a minute,” Smith-Ryan said. The exercise can be anything: walking, stairs, swimming. However, she recommends finding something that you don’t normally do or that you’re not good at doing to increase your heart rate. Then, choose an intensity level that, by the end of a minute, you need a break of no movement or a slower pace.

And, for some people, having a workout partner not only provides safety but also introduces motivation and accountability.

Resistance training for long-term health

One thing that Smith-Ryan stresses is the value of resistance training, whether it’s with weights, bands or body weight. “Resistance training is hugely beneficial for long-term health,” she said. “A lot of people have back pain from sitting or weak core muscles or pain in their shoulders and knees. Building muscle around those joints can be hugely beneficial because muscle tends to protect those joints and against different chronic diseases.”

Going to a gym to lift weights can feel intimidating, but Carolina’s Campus Recreation offers the guidance of personal trainers to help you learn about the proper use of gym equipment and start on a program.

For information about Campus Recreation resources, personal trainers, classes (including HIIT) and programs, see the list at the end of this story.

Motivation to get moving

Getting started is the hardest part for some people. Others are motivated because they are competitive.

Taking those first steps can bring benefits that will keep you going, such as the release of endorphins and adrenaline. “Once your blood flow gets going, you actually get more energy and are not as tired,” Smith-Ryan said. “Sometimes the best time to work out is when you are falling asleep at your desk or when you know you can’t think anymore.”

Exercise when it feels right

Whether you’re a “morning person” or “night owl,’ find a time that works for you. “If you’re not a morning person, don’t stress yourself out by trying to commit to the morning,” Smith-Ryan said. “Maybe it’s the first twenty minutes of your lunch hour or after you put the kids to bed.”

Above all, don’t put off moving when you know it will help you. “It’s 20 minutes. You could always work a little bit longer but that 20 minutes would give you so much more benefit,” Smith-Ryan said.

So, with some planning and easing into short exercise sessions, you may reap the benefits within a much shorter time than you ever imagined. “Exercise can be addictive,” Smith-Ryan says. “Once you have that feeling and it’s a habit, you want it again and again.”

More resources:

The Fitness Consultation Suite in the Student Recreation Center (room 110) offers comprehensive consultations and movement assessments to help you better reach your health and fitness goals. Free to all Campus Recreation members and students by appointment or drop-in.

Certified Personal Trainers provide personalized fitness program, hands-on coaching, support and encouragement.

UNC Group Fitness welcomes all fitness levels and abilities in classes. Certified Group Fitness Instructors offers modifications to help you work at an intensity level appropriate for you and your goals.

Employees who are not members of Campus Recreation can purchase an Employee Class Pass for access to lunchtime Group Fitness Classes.

Start moving: reminders for 2020

  • Just start – it will give you more energy.
  • You can do anything for one minute.
  • Prioritize – exercise and eating healthy can set the stage for every aspect of life.
  • Be realistic – make changes that you will stick with and start small – things that are feasible.
  • Spread calories throughout the day. Include multiple 30-gram protein portions, fruits, vegetables.
  • Take time each week to pack workout clothes and prepare food to have on hand at the office.
  • If you can do something for 14 days, it becomes more of a habit.

By Scott Jared, The Well

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