What if all it takes to get a good workout is 7 minutes? Would you still say you have no time to exercise? Ultra-short workout routines are referred to in the exercise literature as “low-volume.” If the exercises are done very intensely, in bouts separated by short rest periods, it’s called “low-volume, high-intensity interval training.” And that’s what the so-called 7-Minute Workout is all about. Popularized by a New York Times article a few years ago, it was based on a paper published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal, which described a high-intensity circuit training routine using body weight as resistance.
The workout incorporates 12 different calisthenics—including triceps dips, planks, lunges, push-ups, squats, wall sits, and jumping jacks—that work all major muscle groups and pump up your heart without the need for any equipment other than a chair (or bench) and wall. Each is performed for 30 seconds, during which time you do as many repetitions as you can; you then rest for about 10 seconds before proceeding to the next one. Rapidly transitioning from one exercise to another further boosts the cardio (aerobic) aspect of the workout. It’s similar to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), in which you do short bouts of all-out exercise, such as running or cycling, and stop (or at least slow down greatly) in between them. The twist here is that you vary the exercises and hardly rest between them. (For more on HIIT, see High-Intensity Interval Training.)
There are now many versions of the 7-Minute Workout (which actually range in time from about 5 to 10 minutes and in number of exercises from 9 to 12), accessible on websites and as apps for mobile phones and other devices. The original “Scientific 7-Minute Workout” app from the New York Times was followed by its “Advanced 7-Minute Workout,” while an app from Johnson & Johnson calls itself the “Official 7 Minute Workout.” There is the “7 Min Fitness Challenge” and the “7 Minute Workout—U.S. Marines Edition,” along with apps that target “belly fat” and “butts.” Avatars take you through the steps and countdown clocks keep you up to speed, while high-tech app features let you track your progress and share results with friends. Some programs add time for warm-ups and stretching cool-downs.
Weighing the benefits
Many studies show that low-volume, high-intensity interval training in general can improve aerobic capacity and cardiopulmonary health, improve glucose metabolism, and decrease body fat and blood lipids, as well as have psychological benefits. How little can you do and still benefit? The answer is not clear, but according to a review paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 10 minutes or under can “stimulate physiological adaptations linked to improved health when performed 3 to 4 times per week for several weeks.”
There are no published studies that compare any of these 7-minute workouts to traditional 30-minute workouts, but accumulating research suggests that shorter and more intense exercise may be just as good as—if not better than—longer and less intense workouts, at least in some regards. For instance, a study from McMaster University in Canada, published in the Journal of Physiology, found that six weeks of low-volume “sprint” interval cycling produced metabolic changes in muscles comparable to those seen with a traditional cycling routine, but in much shorter time (1½ versus 4 hours a week).
Another study, in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, found that healthy but sedentary men who did low-volume, high-intensity exercise three times a week for eight weeks showed greater improvements in aerobic capacity than those who did traditional continuous workouts. And in a study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, women who did four-minute whole-body interval training four days a week for four weeks had aerobic gains similar to those experienced by women who did an equal number of conventional 30-minute treadmill sessions—plus they had improved muscle endurance, which was not seen in the treadmill group.
Make it count
If you want to try low-volume, high-intensity interval training, there’s no ideal number of exercises you should do or specific time you should do them in. Here’s what matters most:
- Make sure the workout is intense. The rests between exercises should be very brief (no more than 15 seconds) so that you keep up the intensity.
- Include a variety of exercises, especially if this is your only workout, so that you work a range of muscles (including core) and also get an aerobic workout. Variety also helps keep you from getting bored.
- Alternate upper-body and lower-body exercises. Also alternate exercises that boost heart rate significantly (such as jumping squats) with those that allow your heart rate to come down somewhat (such as a stationary plank or triceps dips).
- Use proper form. This is important because it’s easier to injure yourself when you’re working out at such a fast clip.
Not for everyone
People who are obese, have had previous injuries, have been sedentary, are elderly, or have a heart condition or other chronic illness should talk to their doctors first to see if it’s okay to do high-intensity exercise. Such factors are not necessarily contraindications, though caution is needed. In fact, some papers have found benefits of high-intensity interval training in people with coronary artery disease and even chronic heart failure, with no adverse effects observed, as well as benefits in sedentary and obese people and those with diabetes.
Bottom line: If you’ve been working out regularly for at least 30 minutes most days of the week, don’t give that up. For one thing, you won’t burn as many calories with ultra-short workouts. But if you’re pressed for time or have just been a couch potato, seven minutes of exercise is certainly better than zero and may have a number of benefits that match (or possibly even exceed) those of traditional moderate-intensity continuous exercise. To do it right, however, requires a certain level of discomfort—and even fit people may find such workouts challenging. You can follow a 7-Minute Workout on the Internet (including YouTube videos), download a free app, or build your own quickie-but-intense routine that could include anything from jumping rope to squat thrusts and burpees. And keep in mind, you don’t have to stop after seven minutes: You can repeat the whole circuit two, three, or more times...time permitting, of course.