Crunched for time and not able to get your full exercise session done? Can you make do with doing less? What about splitting it up into smaller sessions a few times throughout the day? Or do you put it off for another day and do extra to make up for it? You’re not alone. This is a very common situation, which begs the question, is it better to exercise all at once, or can you get away with doing multiple shorter sessions?
The biggest reason people don’t exercise or miss a session is due to lack of time. Original guidelines told us to exercise 30-45 minutes all at once, three times a week. Mix in a bit of daily activity, and it’s still a good goal to strive for. But it was promoted in such a way that if you can’t get that much done, you might as well do nothing. And that belief still holds for many people.
We now know that isn’t true. Getting in any amount of activity is better than none. And over the course of a day, little bits of activity can add up. As a result, recent guidelines reflect this. Despite this, most adults don’t meet the minimum of 150-300 minutes of moderate (or 75-150 minutes of vigorous) activity per week. So breaking it up throughout the day may make it easier to meet these guidelines.
Smaller and Smaller Amounts of Exercise
The past decade has seen an explosion of studies looking at the possible benefits of smaller and smaller amounts of activity. Numerous studies have shown from your very first step or minute of activity, you start to lower your chances for disease and extend your life. Doing that second minute is even better. In fact, you continue to improve your health all the way up to four times the recommended minimum.
Much of this research has focused on short bursts of intense exercise. These can range from 30 seconds to a few minutes. And can include activities such as interval cycling or doing squats by your office desk. Done as part of a planned workout, this is referred to as high intensity interval training. Or, as part of activity throughout the day, it’s often called an exercise snack.
Then there’s “vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity” (VILPA). This is activity done as part of daily living such as climbing stairs, running for the bus or walking with groceries up a hill. We measure this type of activity using wearable accelerometers that capture an entire day’s (or more) worth of movement. A study of 25,241 non-exercisers, found three 1-2 minute sessions of VILPA per day reduced chances of early death by about 40% compared to people who didn’t do any VILPA.
One vs. Multiple Exercise Sessions
When it comes to fitness, exercise accumulated over multiple sessions in one day results in similar improvements compared to doing the same exercise time and intensity all in one go. And there may be a slight advantage of these multiple sessions on reducing body fat mass and LDL cholesterol. In addition, same-day blood glucose may also be lower with accumulated compared to continuous exercise.
But these studies were all in people who previously didn’t exercise before. Less is known comparing multiple to continuous exercise sessions in people already exercising. While athletes and regular exercisers have incorporated interval training for decades for the purpose of improving fitness and performance, these intervals are done in a single session. A study comparing exercisers switching to multiple sessions to the regular single session is needed to answer this question.
The Weekend Warrior
Current guidelines also suggest one should meet the weekly target of activity throughout the week. And many in the health and fitness fields suggest spacing that amount over 3 to 5 days. But what if you do it in only two days, or even one? Is that bad, okay, or even better?
In comes the weekend warrior. The person who gets all (or most) of their exercise over the weekend due to having more time to do so. The weekend warrior has a bad reputation. This person goes all out on the weekend, on back-to-back days, with very little activity during the week. It’s thought this person is more likely to get injured, loose fitness gains and may even be harming their health.
In terms of muscle strength, one study found that spreading out your training over five days for four weeks improved strength, while one session per week did not. However, concerns of fitness losses following five days of inactivity are unfounded as it may take more than ten days of inactivity to reduce fitness. And the weekend warrior pattern of activity has been shown to be as effective as more frequent exercise with preventing disease and early death.
What Works for You
If you’re short on time, breaking up your exercise session throughout the day is a great way to keep up your activity. Multiple sessions also have the advantage of breaking up sitting time. And each session can give you a burst of energy to carry you through the day as well as manage your blood glucose. And if you’re the weekend warrior type, don’t fret, you’re still getting many of the benefits of daily exercise.
In the end, any exercise you can do is better than not doing it. Some people may find it easier to do their exercise all at once. While others may find success in spreading their exercise throughout the day. And changing from one pattern to another is also unlikely to make a difference in your fitness or health.
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