How to improve your fitness with lots of 20-second exercise ‘bursts’

How to improve your fitness with lots of 20 second exercise bursts

Over the years there have many studies about ways to stay fit. During one of these studies, it was discovered that you can improve your fitness levels by simply performing short bursts of exercise throughout the day. This method is so simple, you could do it at home or even at work.

To prove the effectiveness, the study recruited some students, who had mostly a sedentary lifestyle. Half of this group were instructed to perform short bursts of exercise, such as a brisk climb up and down some stairs. This exercise was then done at intervals throughout the day. The other half of the students or the control group were required to do no exercise.

This simple study came up with the following results after 6 weeks:

  • Those who were instructed to perform the exercise were found to have an increased VO2max. This is a measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen used during intense exercise. In other words, it measures your cardio-fitness levels.
  • The measurement showed a 5% improvement over the control group.

Many of us feel the pressure to set aside some time for exercise while trying to fit everything else into the day. Sometimes, it just feels unattainable. Instead of aiming for longer workout sessions, research indicates that shorter bursts of exercise or a mini-workout throughout the day can also help with keeping fit. One of these studies was done by the American Heart Association, which you can read here.

In most cases where studies are performed, it is done in a lab with participants using a stationary bike. Some researchers have taken this a step further and applied the study outside of the laboratory. One such researcher is Dr Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at the McMaster University in Ontario Canada. One great method is to utilize stairs, many people live and work in an environment with stairs, making it an accessible activity.

During this study, he enrolled some volunteer students, who reported having an inactive lifestyle. These students were otherwise in good health and were required to perform an hour of controlled exercise each week. As described before half of the students were required to perform the ‘bursts’ of exercise, while the other half formed the control group.

The exercise group had to perform three ‘bursts’ of exercise a day, for three days of the week. These exercises involved climbing stairs for about 20 seconds. Students then rested from one to four hours. As with all exercise programmes, a warm-up session and cool down was included.

Warm-up exercises:

  • 10 squats
  • 10 jumping jacks
  • Leg lunges, 5 on each side


  • Walk around for about 1 minute

A great way to practically implement this exercise routine, arrive at work in the morning and vigorously climb the stairs. Do the same at lunchtime and then before going home.

The study itself revealed some improvement in the cardio fitness of the participants who climbed the stairs. To measure the improvements accurately, each participant underwent a cardio-respiratory test before and then after the exercise programme. This test will then measure the capacity at which the lungs, heart and blood vessels carry oxygen throughout the body. Also, know as the VO2max test.

This test ultimately measures your fitness level, which is important because results can be associated with certain health risks, such as heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

At the conclusion of the study, those who performed the ‘bursts’ of exercise, showed a 5% improvement in their VO2max. Those in the control group, who remained inactive, obviously stayed the same with no improvements. Even though the effect was negligible, it was still measurable and an improvement.

Looking to the future and further studies, researchers aim to explore these ‘bursts’ of exercise in more detail. Studies could further include longer exercise times, a more diverse group of participants, as well as measure its effectiveness against things like balancing blood sugar and blood pressure.

The research study doesn’t claim that you only need one minute of exercise a day to stay healthy. You need to look at multiple ‘bursts’ that add up in a single day, together adding up to provide a result over time. It just shows that you don’t really have to, that is if you don’t want to, go to the gym. You can simply incorporate exercise into your daily routine, by climbing those stairs or parking a distance from the shopping mall entrance. These small choices add up to better benefits.