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Home > ten minutes to fitness

What you can--and can't--expect to gain from short bouts of exercise.

Forget the notion that exercise sessions must last 20 to 60 minutes to get you fit.

"This is completely unrealistic for most people," says Glenn A. Gaesser, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Virginia who specializes in jump-starting sedentary adults.

Only about 15 percent of Americans comply with the American College of Sports Medicine's (ACSM) recommendations for adult fitness, which prescribe 20 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise three to five days a week, plus strengthening and flexibility exercises two to three days a week.

"Most people complain that they `don't have time'" for this much exercise, notes Gaesser, who co-chaired the committee that wrote these guidelines in 1998. For the first time, the ACSM's experts offered busy people a way to boost fitness without setting aside huge chunks of time.

"In parentheses, almost as an afterthought," Gaesser notes, "we stated that a daily workout of at least half an hour could be broken up into ten-minute segments if necessary throughout the day."

Nearly anyone could fit such short bouts of activity into their day, decided Gaesser, who created a program where people never had to exercise for more than ten minutes at a time. Participants performed 15 ten-minute "sparks" of exercise each week. These consisted of:

* Seven to ten "aerobic sparks," such as dancing to music, an early-morning "pick up the paper" walk, or a midday office stair climb.

* Two to four "strength-training sparks," such as calisthenics or resistance exercises using weights.

* Two to four "flexibility sparks," such as stretching at work or at home.

He combined these ten-minute exercise "sparks" with a sensible eating plan and tested the program on 40 sedentary people. On average, in three weeks, participants lost three pounds, boosted their aerobic capacity by 10 to 15 percent, showed strength and muscular endurance increases ranging from 40 to 100 percent, improved flexibility scores, and significantly improved their cholesterol profiles--with a reduction of as much as 34 points among those in the high-risk range.

"With relatively small amounts of exercise that people could easily fit into their daily lives, they were able to improve their health, fitness, and well-being," says Gaesser, who with coauthor Karla Dougherty has written a book called The Spark, which was just published in January by Simon and Schuster.

This idea that short bouts of exercise can yield significant health benefits has been gaining increased attention in recent years as public-health officials try to move sedentary Americans off the couch and reduce epidemic rates of obesity.

Last summer, the American Heart Association's journal Circulation published a Harvard School of Public Health study indicating that two 15-minute exercise sessions curb heart disease risk as much as a single 30-minute session. The AHA stamp marked mainstream acceptance of a concept that was breakthrough thinking ten years ago, when a report published in the American Journal of Cardiology suggested that three 10-minute exercise bouts per day offered fitness benefits similar to those gained from one 30-minute session.

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