Busting The Minimalist Workout Myth

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Forgive me while I get up on my soapbox this week.  But I’m tired of seeing articles like this:

12 Minutes of Exercise a Week could be enough to Stay Fit

Here are a few other headlines that I’ve seen recently:

The Scientific 7-minute Workout

 How 3 minutes of Exercise a Week could Change your Life

 or

No Time for Exercise?  Try High Intensity Interval Training

 In my opinion, these articles are promoting a minimalist approach to exercise that I think is misleading and even dangerous.

I’m used to research being exaggerated in the media, but in the last few weeks, I’ve also heard from (and debated with) several different fitness experts, health coaches, and personal trainers that also promote this hogwash to their clients.  They’ll say, “With my new technique/training approach/diet plan/piece of equipment, x minutes a day is all you need!

I'm working. (2) Akane Yamada via Compfight

The problem with these messages (and the reason these articles and strategies are popular,) is they fool people into focusing on the minimal amounts of exercise necessary to show some benefit, while allowing them to happily live their sedentary lifestyle spending 8-10 hours a day sitting at a desk and staring at a screen.  This is NOT HEALTHY.

Don’t get me wrong.  The research behind these shorter workouts is valid.  These minimalist workouts do work, and I do them myself when time is short.  But they work minimally.  Here is how the headlines should read:

12 minutes of Exercise a Week is better than Nothing, or

7 minutes of Exercise a Day is enough to Make an Inactive Sloth mildly Fitter, or

If You Can Only Spend 20 Minutes a Day on your Health, High Intensity Training is a Great Option

These articles are great if they motivate someone who is sedentary to begin working out.  And for someone who is time-challenged, I do believe that 3 or 7 or 12 minutes a day is infinitely better than doing nothing.  But if you are truly interested in fitness, health or wellbeing, you need to move your body, and in most cases more is better.

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“Whoa,” some people will say, “what about the risks of ‘over-training’ I’ve been reading about?  What about the importance of ‘rest days’”?

Any new exercise program should be worked up to in a gradual progression.  But otherwise, unless you are a highly competitive athlete, you probably don’t need to worry about working out too much.  Most people are nowhere near their upper limits.  Listen to your body, bring diversity into your training, and move more (see my article on why working out every day is better than 3 times a week.)

When you set the minimums as your goal, it’s too easy to fall short.  And yet in our time-starved, productivity-focused culture, it’s so tempting to ask, “what’s the minimum I can do?”

Better questions to ask might be,

“How can I maximize my physical health?”

“What would be possible with my body if was willing to invest time and effort into an exercise program?”

“What are my long term health goals, and what’s the best way to accomplish them?”

I can assure you that the answers to these questions cannot be found in 12 minutes a week.

So take these short workouts for what they are: a good start.  If you’re not getting any exercise, then start small and build on it from there.  But don’t set these minimums as the finish line.  Your physical fitness and your body’s capacity for movement represent a virtually infinite horizon that you can spend your lifetime exploring.

But it does take time.

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22 Responses to Busting The Minimalist Workout Myth

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar June 4, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    I agree with everything that you said in this article, Jeremy. At the same time, I also understand why health coaches and PTs would promote the minimalist approach: that’s what people want. It may not be what they need, but it is what they will buy. So as you said, it’s probably better to get them started with something in the hope that they can then graduate to more. But there’s another underlying danger: the minimalist approach can lead people to do so little that they don’t feel the benefits of their effort (which they consider to be big), and consequently give up altogether.

    What’s the solve? Please forgive my unashamed self-promotion here, but I think the SaS Compass can really help. We get people started with a little exercise. When they feel like they aren’t getting enough benefits and so are reluctant to exercise more (why do more of something that doesn’t work?), we encourage them to move to another health-promoting behavior, be it in the sleep, food, or mood category. That way they don’t resent the increased exercise, and benefits start to compound. Once the second behavior is also becoming routine, we move to a third one. And so on. By the time the person is back reconsidering more exercise, they will likely feel the benefits of an overall healthier lifestyle, and be more optimistic about taking on more.

    Just my 2 cents and everyone is different, but it’s worked very well for my clients and book readers in the past.

  2. Judy Krings June 4, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    I read somewhere that exercise was what most people told themselves the “should” do (nasty word!) but don’t.

    I agree with your kind truths here, Jeremy. I don not exercise as much as I need to for optimal health, but at least I am mindfully sitting holding in my gut, shoulders back, and I am smiling.

    Now I am onto walking for an hour while on a mastermind call. Not a good run, but better than nothing.

  3. oz June 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Jeremy – you sort of have it right. I do 20 minutes of interval training – 5 x 4 minute blocks (2 on and 2 off). My fitness has gone through the roof and I have the energy to do anything I want.

    However I also do alot of incidental exercise during the day – the pedometer says about 15000 steps. Resaerch shows that from a health perspective, incidental exercise is more important.

    I guess you have seen the reserach comparing 3 groups of people – control, moderate exercise and intensive exercise. The moderate group lost the most weight. It appears that the intensive exercise dropped their incidental exercise because they were too tired.

    As always its complex

  4. Jeremy McCarthy June 5, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    Thanks everyone for your comments. To be clear, I’m not against short workouts nor am I against high intensity training (in fact, I do both of these things myself.) I’m sure the 7-minute workout I posted above is a great workout and I would probably do it if I wanted to get a good workout in under ten minutes.

    What bothers me is the “this is all you need” messaging. Imagine you did a research study showing one group of babies who were raised by wolves and one group who got 20 minutes of nurturing parenting every day. If you showed that 20 minutes of parenting made the kids higher-functioning, would you say that “20 minutes of parenting a day is all we need?” No. and the reason is because we don’t just want to do the minimums for our kids, we want them to reach their full potential.

    So we don’t think, “what’s the minimum I can do for my children so they don’t grow up scarred for life” and we don’t think “what’s the minimum I can do for my career so I don’t get fired” and we don’t think “what’s the minimum I can do for my spouse so that he/she doesn’t divorce me.” But with our health, we think about “what’s the minimum I can do so that I won’t become obese/diabetic or prone to heart attacks.”

    I’m suggesting we can do better than this. And by striving for the minimums, we are likely to fall short and be in trouble. If we strive to maximize our potential, we will do much better in the long run.

    I realize we can never reach our full potential in any one area. It’s always a matter of juggling priorities and compromising based on our values. We’re supposed to sleep for 8 hours a day, work for 10 hours a day, lift weights for 20 minutes, stretch for 30, run for 30, spend quality time with the kids, quality time with the spouse, go to church, manage finances, feed the dog, etc. etc. etc. We can’t do it all and we have to make decisions along the way. Sometimes that means using shorter workouts to allow us to focus on other things that we hold as more important.

    I’m only suggesting that we make those decisions mindfully and don’t fool ourselves into believing that a 7-minute superworkout is going to make you healthy when you spend 8 hours a day sitting at a desk.

    I like MJ’s approach. It goes back to what I said in the article, “take these short workouts for what they are: a good start.” Add a 7-minute workout to your routine and make it habitual. When that becomes easy, add something else. We are, as Nassim Taleb says, “antifragile.” We grow from challenging ourselves and pushing beyond our comfort zones.

  5. oz June 5, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    Jeremy – aren’t you reinforcing th wrong message that its the workout thats all important. As I said above, it appears to be incidental exercise. Since I have read this reserach I have upped my incidental exercise by 50% by making the most of wasted moments or multi tasking. eg going for a walking meeting, walking to the next station when I miss the train, going to the coffee shop that is further from home, taking the dog for an extra lap of the park etc

    It’s easy but not helped by people reinforcing myths.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy June 5, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    ? Oz, it’s the same point I’m making. More movement is better for you.

  7. jason June 7, 2013 at 1:08 am #

    Not sure if this fits into the thread. Obviously you are speaking to the mass market of exercise who’s interested in the quick fix. Like you, I’m more interested in optimal performance (not minimal). Of course, at the upper end of the spectrum, less becomes more again. For example, contrast Lance Armstrong’s training regimen* with the old Eddy Merckx addage, “Ride Lots”. Modern high performance training has a much greater emphasis on the impact of rest and recovery on peak performance….not just who trains the hardest.

    *This comment assumes that both Merckx and Armstrong had access to similar drugs. In reality, I suspect Armstrong’s drugs were also more sophisticated, so his training regimen was only partially the reason for his more spectacular success. Sad statement that professional sports goes into the post-optimal realm where health is sacrificed for “success”.

    A more cheery note on the post-optimal realm in cycling: there is a myth that says to win at the stage to Alpe D’Huez a rider gives up a year of his life expectancy….because of the sheer pain and damage that they subject their body to. I suspect that they more likely gain a year of life in that victory.

    Anyway Bro, great article and I really appreciate the way you frame it to the average person who’s just setting the bar way too low. At least programs like P90x and Insanity are starting to present a more accurate image of what productive exercise really looks and feels like.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy June 7, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    Thanks bro, totally agree with you that when you get into the upper end of the spectrum there can be too much of a good thing. That being said, I would also argue that one problem that elite athletes have is not the fact that they are exercising too much but that they are exercising too narrowly. In other words, spending six hours every day on a bike is just as bad as spending six hours every day sitting and staring at a computer screen. To truly thrive, we need diversity. The problem with training for a specific sport is it constrains your movement into limited patterns that are necessary for competition as opposed to broadly developing greater capacity for movement with infinite variety. We’re seeing this trend be expressed now in modern workouts like CrossFit and P90X that emphasize variety over gains in one particular dimension of movement.

  9. oz June 8, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Jeremy – Perhaps the myth is about working out. What if we just need to move regularly?

  10. Jeremy McCarthy June 8, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    I kind of think both are important. To move towards optimal fitness levels you need two things: overload (i.e. to ask your body to do more than it’s used to doing) and progression (i.e. to gradually increase this overload over time.) If you can do this incidentally, great, but you can be more scientific about it by planning specific workouts designed to work on areas you want to develop.

  11. oz June 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Jeremy – Ultimately it depends what youy are trying to achieve. If you are planning on being a triathlete then sure – if you are an average perosn then lots of incidental exerciuse might be all you need.

    As you well know one size doesn’t fit all. You need to be fit for purpose

  12. Jeremy McCarthy June 9, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    That is precisely the pervasive minimalist approach that I am rebutting. Out of curiosity, do you feel the same way about psychological wellbeing?

  13. Marie-Josee Shaar June 11, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    And what if the “optimal” workout was different for everyone, regardless of purpose? Maybe some people are genetically more responsive to different workout/movement styles.

    Maybe Oz’s body likes and benefits most lots of incidental movement and J’s body prefers the stimulation of PX90? Or maybe what’s best changes over time, too?

    I see research “proving” that we need to go for these big peaks to get maximum benefits (weight loss, heart rate, blood pressure, triglycerides, etc), and I see other research “proving” that we are better off going for more movement even if that means skipping the peaks. What if the missing piece came from genetics?

    😉

    MJ

  14. oz June 11, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    I am obviously bumbling here.

    What if its not about the workout?

    What if promoting the workout (period) sends the wrong message?

    What if low intenisty exercise is better than short bursts of high intensity? (parallels low energy affect vs high energy affect)

    What if high energy isn’t sustainable?

    What if the best type of exercise depends on muscle type/physiology?

    Re psychological wellbeing there are too many clowns out there claiming to have the foundations of wellbeing with no evidence

    One size doesn’t fit all?

  15. Jeremy McCarthy June 11, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    I think these are interesting questions but I think the research is pretty clear on the principle of specificity in exercise. In other words, our bodies adapt to the demands we place on them. Incidental exercise is important but it only gets us so far. If you want your body to be stronger, you need to use your strength in new ways. If you want your body to be faster, you need to move faster. If you want to be more limber, you need to move in a greater range of motion, etc. etc.

    Incidental exercise is great because it helps to prepare our body for more incidental movement which is probably most of what we use our bodies for (so maybe this is Oz’s point that this is “all we need.”) And in general, I think moving more is better than moving less. But my point is if you want to pursue optimal fitness you have to challenge your body in other ways. It doesn’t matter to me whether the demands you place on your body happen “incidentally” or through a specific workout, but they have to be sufficient to stimulate the body to adapt.

    There are plenty of people wandering around living perfectly happy lives with only incidental exercise so it is a matter of priorities, but (at the risk of being repetitive) I think most people would be better off if they strove to develop their capacity for movement rather than asking, “what’s the minimum I can do.”

    Eventually age plays a role in this also. Most people, without some kind of exercise will begin to lose muscle, lose flexibility and gain fat as they grow older. So doing the minimum to meet whatever purpose you happen to have now may not be enough to meet your needs as you get older.

    Striving for optimal fitness means developing a capacity for movement that is beyond what you need to get through your day (but this capacity is there as a resource for when you need it.) And this capacity helps to extend your functional capabilities through more years of your lifespan.

  16. Kathy July 2, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

    I’ve just recently sign up for gym membership and I’m ready to start my HIIT next week!

  17. Glenn Whitney July 16, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    Interesting Jeremy. But show us some data please.

  18. Jeremy McCarthy July 16, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    HI Glenn, I’m not well versed on the research on this (although my guess is that someone who is could find the data to support my point) but look at the qualitative research on your own site. If you interview any professional athlete, any professional dancer, or any individual who has achieved excellence in movement, I’m sure you will find that they have put countless hours of practice into developing their capacity to move. They don’t get there by doing the minimums.

  19. MAS July 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    Professional athletes are developing a skill. That does require daily practice. Workouts are about developing strength. Building strength does require rest.

    When you combine a skill movement under load for high volumes, your risk of injury increases.

    Performing Minimal workouts are about developing strength with minimal risk of injury. Unlike professional athletes which have an extraordinary ability for recovery, us mortals need to balance risk versus reward.

    I’m in far better shape doing minimal workouts than when I was going to the gym 3-4 times a week. No injuries either.

  20. Glenn Whitney July 16, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Yes – but wouldn’t it be great to be able to show with hard numbers why working out (for example) for 2 hours a day is significantly more beneficial than, for example, working out for 1 hour per day?

  21. Jeremy McCarthy July 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    MAS, I think you bring up an important point and have the best criticism of my article to date. I’m saying generally that “more is better” but it would be easy for someone to take this advice and overdo it and lead to an injury. In my mind, there are three key factors here:
    1. Diversity: When I say more movement is better, I don’t mean that doing 1000 pushups a week is better than doing 20 pushups a week. I mean if you are already doing 20 pushups a week you could still enhance your physical wellness by adding some walking or running or stretching or dance or other strength exercises, etc. Even professional athletes are prone to injury (or complain later in life about the physical injuries they suffer from years of overtraining.) But this is not only because of the intense volume that they train, it’s also because they specialize in very specific movements rather than approaching their movement training in a very broad and diversified way.
    2. Quality: If people are going to start moving more, it is important that they are moving well. In other words if you move in a way that aggravates your body and you do more of that you are likely to create more aggravation. A good example of this would be lifting exercises such as squats or deadlifts which are easy to do improperly and subject your spinal column to risk. Increasing the volume of an improperly done exercise only increases the risk of injury.
    3. Progression:As I mentioned above, the body is amazing at adapting to the stressors placed on it but there is a fine line between enough adversity to stimulate adaptation and enough to create an injury. The goal is to improve movements through gradual progressions that stay on the safe side of this spectrum, but it’s easy to cross the line and get injured if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    So suffice it to say, I think this is a good point and one that should be taken seriously in the context of my article. I wouldn’t say however that “workouts are about developing strength” as you mentioned above. What I am talking about is broadly working on developing your capacity to move. This means not exclusively focusing on strength, but working on improved range of motion, endurance, power, speed, agility, balance, kinesthetic awareness, rhythm, etc. etc. etc. Again, diversity is key. I agree that having a very limited or specialized approach to movement could lead to injuries.

  22. MAS July 16, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    Fair enough. Sounds like we just differ on the terms we are using. I use workout and exercise to describe movements to used to develop strength, which are by nature deeply fatiguing.

    Everything else falls under recreation. And I’m all for spending more time on recreation – especially diverse movements like you mentioned, provided they aren’t done in a fatiguing manner which could compromise form and lead to injury.

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