Get Fit at Home With Micro-Workouts
by Catherine Morris | September 8, 2020, updated about 2 years ago
When does exercise not feel like exercise? When you do it without even thinking about it.
The words 'physical activity' conjure images of sweating through endless rounds of punishing gym circuits, not to mention intimidating spaces where very strong people are lifting very heavy objects.
It doesn't have to be that way—if you're forcing yourself into a fitness routine that feels like punishment, chances are it won't last. The most effective exercise plans are the ones that integrate seamlessly into your life. You can boost your physical and mental health through exercise anywhere.
Enter micro-workouts! Your new, low-maintenance exercise regime.
What is a Micro-Workout?
The trend in exercise in recent years has been to shorten exercise while upping gains. Micro-workouts are exactly what they sound like—quick exercises that deliver more of the benefits of physical activity in less time.
Sound too good to be true? Sports science is now touting the benefits of quick but effective activity, particularly High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
High Intensity Interval Training
HITT intersperses short bursts (typically 30 to 90 seconds) of maximum effort with recovery periods.
If you really want to up your fitness, the best HIIT is 60 seconds on, 60 seconds off, according to researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK.
The benefits of HIIT are far-reaching and well-documented. This form of exercise is great for heart health, reduces body fat and reduces harmful LDL cholesterol. HIIT has been used as a treatment in chronic disease, improving outcomes for Parkinson's patients, arthritis sufferers, and people with diabetes.
It has a positive impact on mental health and acuity, improving memory, releasing feel-good endorphins, and reducing anxiety.
High Intensity Incidental Physical Activity—The Low-Impact Micro-Workout
HIIT workouts aren't for everyone. Interval training pushes participants to their limits, exhausting the body and stressing the system. It can be hard to work up the motivation for this type of exercise, especially after a long day of work, or running around after the kids.
If you're dealing with an injury, have an underlying medical condition, or simply aren't in the right headspace, HIIT isn't a realistic option.
Gentler micro-workouts have less intensity but add up to real results if part of a daily habit. Researchers are now referring to them as 'High Intensity Incidental Physical Activity' (HIIPA) and say any workout that gets you out of breath qualifies, even if it only lasts a few minutes.
A set of ten push-ups while waiting for the kettle to boil, calf raises as you take a phone call, bodyweight squats done in front of the television—there are a myriad of ways to integrate small bursts of activity into your life.
Sure it's not a cardio class, but when built into a regular routine these movements can really help build strength over time. They can be easily scaled up or down, depending on your ability.
Beginners can get a good burn from bodyweight exercises alone; think jumping jacks, stair sprints, lunges or planks. More proficient lifters might leave dumb-bells or exercise bands around the house to bust out a few sets of classic strength exercises—bicep curls, deadlifts, squats—while watching the TV.
Gentle micro-workouts are practical, inexpensive, and you don't need to change clothes or even break a sweat. They go back to the basics of fitness—move more, and move often.
How to Create a Micro-Workout Routine
To maximize your chances of success, there's a few hacks that might come in handy. Whether integrating micro-workouts into your already established routine, developing new habits or enlisting external help, there's a lot you can do to make exercise a bigger part of your life.
Get Active on Your Commute
Over 12 million Canadians hop into their cars for a daily commute, spending an average of 24 minutes getting to the office. Add another half hour for the trip home and that's almost 60 minutes per day sitting at the steering wheel, cursing as traffic crawls around them.
Most people loathe their commute, seeing it strictly as a way to quickly get from point A to point B. Maybe this ‘wasted’ chunk of time could be an opportunity to squeeze in a fun micro-workout.
According to a British study, commuters who cycle or walk to work report higher levels of physical and mental well-being.
Ditching the car to cycle, walk, or jog doesn't have to be intimidating. Start small—leaving the car at home just one or two days a week—and plan ahead. Track your routes, and pack essentials like a change of clothes and safety gear.
Once you become familiar, you can have fun with it by mixing up your routes, and perhaps enlisting some friends.
Many of the parks across Canada are re-opened, making it the perfect time to turn nature.
Unlike the sterile (or potentially covid-infected), unchanging environment of your local (likely still closed) gym, the great outdoors is a varied, evolving landscape with fun activities that incorporate many different types of movement.
You can make your outdoor micro-workout as challenging as sprinting to the park, or as low-impact as walking the dog.
Exercising outside yields more mental benefits than exercising indoors, as participants engage more with their surroundings and gain more satisfaction from their chosen activity.
If you're someone who shirks the gym, and finds it hard to commit to a training program, outdoor exercise might be the answer. People who exercise in nature are more motivated and, distracted by the scenery, tend not to realize just how much they're exerting themselves.
Set Yourself Mini Challenges
From people that need a push to people that need pressure, we all have different attitudes about exercise, and different triggers.
If you're someone that enjoys a challenge, an easy way to get more micro-workouts in is to set yourself, and perhaps a group of like-minded friends, daily mini-challenges.
Humans are social animals. We like to compare, compete and collaborate—especially when it comes to exercise. Group micro-workouts tap into our basic need for connection and support, helping boost motivation and morale. You can even do it while socially distanced, by using one of a myriad of apps available to everyone, that make tracking easy.
Depending on your goals and fitness level, these could range from timed tests such as, “How many push-ups can you do in 60 seconds?” to “How long can you hold a plank?” To super set workouts that gradually build in intensity throughout the week—20 squats on Monday, 30 on Tuesday and so on.
Even if you're only competing with yourself, mini-challenges can give you crucial motivation as you see your progress develop. In a group setting, shared camaraderie and friendly pressure is a helpful tool to assist everyone in reaching their goals.
Challenging others is also a good way to stay accountable. Peer pressure will ensure you're not tempted to skip a day or cheat the numbers—but choose your workout buddy wisely. A study from Santa Clara University suggests that exercising with someone fitter encourages people to push themselves more. Sweating alongside someone weaker however, decreases exertion.
Customize your space
Modern life is all about convenience, but for the sake of your health it might be time to make your home a little more inconvenient.
Most of us have set up our surroundings for minimal effort. We put comfortable chairs and couches everywhere, set the remote next to the bed, and constantly keep our phones within reach.
Simply being aware of how little you move at home can create new, healthier habits. Taking a look around, there are many small but significant ways to boost activity in the spaces where you spend most of your time—
- Instead of taking everything downstairs in one trip, leave a few things on the top floor so you’re forced to walk up and down the stairs more?
- Maybe put sticky notes on the fridge setting movement reminders.
- If you have them, leave dumb-bells, a kettlebell or exercise bands within reach so you can handily grab them while watching TV.
- Small changes yield big results. If you don't know where to start with your workout, start small.
If you are new to exercise or thinking about changing things up, it might be a good idea to check out Which Doctor to connect with a fitness consultant or trainer to help you plan a customized routine.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.