The LITTLE EXERCISES that go a long way

Just a few seconds of effort really can help transform your health, with our expert guide to… The LITTLE EXERCISES that go a long way

  • Three seconds of bicep curls, 5 days a week for a month, can increase strength
  • Professor Ken Nosaka says short, good-quality exercise can still be good for you
  • Director of exercise and sports science at Edith Cowan University has co-designed the ‘three second’ study

You are busy and squeezing exercise into your day is hard, right? But sports scientists have excellent news. They have discovered that performing just three seconds of exertion in the form of a bicep curl, five days a week for a month, can increase your strength. 

The same scientists also found that the mere act of lowering your behind onto a chair can boost fitness — if you slow the movement so that your muscles, rather than gravity, do the work. It seems ‘I’ve barely had time to sit down,’ is no longer an excuse for inactivity. 

Professor Ken Nosaka, director of exercise and sports science at Australia’s Edith Cowan University, co-designed the ‘three second’ study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. Its goal, he explains, was to find the ‘minimum’ amount of exercise required for us to stay healthy and fit. 

Professor Ken Nosaka says short, good-quality exercise can still be good for you. Director of exercise and sports science at Edith Cowan University has co-designed the ‘three second’ study

Great minds think alike, because several leading sports scientists have been investigating ‘feasible and accessible’ exercise options for the time-poor or activity-averse. Martin Gibala, Professor of Kinesiology and Faculty of Science Research Chair in Integrative Exercise Physiology at McMaster University in Canada, has focused on exercise intensity — and the question, as he puts it, is ‘How little can you get away with and still see benefits?’ 

Several leading sports scientists have been investigating ‘feasible and accessible’ exercise options for the time-poor or activity-averse

‘While not having an hour to spare is often an excuse,’ says Professor Gibala, ‘many of us lead time-pressed lives and want a definitive answer to the question, “Could I spread my activity out through the day?”. The evidence is starting to accumulate that, yes, you can.’ 

We can incorporate what scientists call ‘exercise snacks’ and a strategy of VILPA — ‘Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity’. 

Performing just three seconds of exertion in the form of a bicep curl or squat, five days a week for a month, can increase your strength

Exercise snacks also reduce the harmful impact on health of being sedentary for hours on end. If we don’t always have the time or inclination for a solid 45-minute workout, there are many extremely brief ways to boost, supplement or maintain fitness. 

As Professor Nosaka says: ‘Short, good-quality exercise can still be good for your body. And every muscle contraction counts.’ 

So whether you have a mere three seconds or a luxurious five minutes free to work out, there’s an exercise snack for you.

THE THREE-SECOND BICEP CURL

A concentric contraction occurs when you shorten your muscle, by bending your elbow 

In Professor Nosaka’s ‘three-second’ study, 39 participants performed either an isometric, concentric or eccentric bicep curl five days a week, over four weeks. 

An isometric contraction is when your muscle is ‘stationary under load’ — you’re holding a weight parallel to the ground but not moving. A concentric contraction occurs when you shorten your muscle, by bending your elbow to lift the dumbbell up towards your chest. An eccentric contraction is when you lengthen the muscle, by extending your elbow and lowering the weight.) 

The participants lifted, lowered or held as heavy a load as they could manage. All three methods improved muscle strength. However, those in the eccentric contraction group (lowering a heavy weight slowly) saw the most improvement — their overall muscle strength improved by 11.5 per cent. 

Try it at home with a dumbbell that feels heavy to you, and make sure you do it daily. Professor Nosaka also tested the effect of six contractions done once a week, for four weeks — ‘We didn’t see any improvement in strength. It is better to do a very small amount every day.’

THE FIVE-SECOND SIT-DOWN 

Professor Nosaka advises anyone to sit to the slow count of five every day

Professor Nosaka designed another study on the theme of gradually lowering a heavy weight — in this case, one’s own body — by ‘sitting onto a chair, slowly’ ten times a day, three times a week, for eight weeks. At the end of the study, participants saw a large increase in m­uscle strength. 

Normally, he says, people plonk themselves down, allowing gravity to do the work. ‘They don’t resist.’ He advises anyone to sit — on a chair, sofa or lavatory — to the slow count of five, every day. 

‘You are performing eccentric [muscle-lengthening] contractions of the knee extensors, which is very effective at improving muscle strength and muscle size,’ he explains. And for greater gains, progress ‘to sitting on the chair slowly using one leg’. 

THE 30-SECOND ARM OR LEG STRETCH 

Professor Nosaka advises performing these exercises where you put your back against the wall 

‘We sit at chairs and desks a lot in the workplace — even someone like me who is a clinician and walks around and sees patients,’ says eminent cardiologist Chris Semsarian, Professor of Medicine at the University of Sydney. 

‘You sit all day, you put on weight, you slow your metabolism.’ 

He suggests regularly stretching your arms and legs in the office. ‘Do exercises where you put your back against the wall and actually lift your arms up above your head — you can do that in your work attire, in the middle of the day, to help with your posture.’ 

Just 30 seconds per stretch seems to be ideal. A clinical trial, published in the official journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, assigned stretching exercises to 93 men and women who had limited hamstring muscle flexibility. They did just 30 seconds of stretching five days a week, over six weeks. 

The results suggested that a 30- second hamstring-muscle stretch is enough to increase range of motion. There was no increase in flexibility when the stretching time was increased to 60 seconds, or when stretching was increased to three times per day. 

60 SECONDS OF SQUATS OR LUNGES 

Cardiologist Professor Semsarian is a big believer in the stationary squat

When super-fit clients of celebrity trainer Zana Morris (zanamorris. com) travel abroad, she prescribes a minute of squats a day to maintain fitness levels. 

‘Squats are fantastic,’ she says. ‘They are a compound exercise, which means you work the all major muscle groups — thighs, quads, hamstrings, glutes. Even your abs and back have to engage to do them properly.’ 

They are low-impact, which makes them easy on the joints, but tough nonetheless. 

Cardiologist Professor Semsarian is also a big believer — and the stationary squat is an option. At his work, he says, ‘We every now and then have a squat meeting — we’re all squatting at the same time.’ 

If this is too much, he suggests squatting while you watch television for a minute. But if squats aren’t your thing, try a minute of another compound exercise — the lunge. Or, if you prefer the organic approach, march fast up a steep hill. Morris says: ‘A minute of hill-walking — that’s your high-intensity lunge workout.’

60-SECOND BURPEE/BOXING WORKOUT 

Omar Mansour, specialist fitness coach at WithU has created a workout to strengthen your core

Need more of a challenge? Omar Mansour, specialist fitness coach at WithU audio fitness app, has a workout to make you sweat, strengthen your core and raise your heart rate. 

‘This is a variation on the classic burpee,’ he says. ‘Start standing up, then drop to the floor to a press-up position before tucking your legs in towards your chest and springing back up onto your feet again. While on your feet, shadow box by throwing a couple of quick cross-jabs across your body with alternate arms. Repeat for 20 reps as quickly as you can — or as many times as you can do in a minute.’ If your back doesn’t take kindly to ‘springing’, perform the moves in a controlled way without any explosive leaping.

TWO MINUTES OF STAIR-CLIMBING 

Brief bouts of vigorous exercise can increase fitness, says Professor Gibala

Brief bouts of vigorous exercise can increase fitness, says Professor Gibala. One of his studies investigated stair-climbing — vigorously ascending and descending a flight of stairs for a minute, three times a week. ‘If you repeat that a couple of times a week, it can lead to benefits.’ 

No stairs? No problem. ‘The type of exercise doesn’t matter. It’s the intensity that’s key,’ he says. So you might choose cycling, running, swimming, stairclimbing or jumping jacks — ‘anything that gets your heart rate elevated,’ he says. He also conducted a study in which previously inactive participants performed three very intense 20-second bursts of cardio — pedalling furiously on an exercise bike — with a two-minute pause in between, three times a week. Their cardiorespiratory fitness increased by 12 per cent in six weeks. ‘

This is a global marker of the health of the heart, the lungs, the ability of the blood vessels to circulate oxygen through the body,’ he says. ‘The higher your cardiorespiratory fitness, the lower your risk of dying from all causes, the lower your risk of developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.’ 

THE FIVE-MINUTE DOWNWARD DOG 

There is growing evidence that yoga generally is good for your cardiovascular health

Professor Semsarian is a big yoga fan. 

‘There is growing evidence that yoga generally is good for your cardiovascular health,’ he says. ‘It’s something you need only do for a few minutes a day for it to have beneficial effects.’ 

Just five minutes of yoga daily can lower your blood pressure, lower your heart rate and train you to breathe steadily and regularly — ‘all very helpful for cardiovascular health,’ he says. 

While an hour of yoga is great for health, ‘compact yoga’ done regularly is invaluable. He says: ‘I think the key is doing a little every day — that’s much better than doing a lot twice a week.’ 

So while you wait for the kettle to boil, why not do a downward dog. Press your hands to the floor and stretch your arms straight, shoulder-width apart, then raise your hips as high as possible and straighten your legs.

Or a tree pose — ‘excellent for balance,’ he says — where you stand on one leg, with the foot of your other leg pressed against your inner thigh (or as high on your leg as you can get it). 

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