I’ll admit it: Up until late last year, I was skeptical of short workouts—I didn’t think a routine that was less than 30 or 45 minutes could be “enough.” Then I stumbled upon a 10-minute glutes-focused barre workout on YouTube.
Before then I’d never done barre in my life. My sweat of choice was a 45-minute flow I’d learned over years of Pilates and yoga classes, or maybe a 30-minute circuit workout with traditional strength-training moves like lunges, squats, push-ups, crunches, and perhaps a plank thrown in for kicks.
The barre class intrigued me. For one thing, I knew a number of my friends enjoyed barre—and it required only a chair, which seemed like an easy place to start. For another, I had noticed my old routine wasn’t really serving me any more: I found it hard to get excited about the same exercises day after day with no teacher to motivate me, and I was too tired from staring at a screen all day to join a virtual class and…stare at a screen for another hour. I was ready to try something new. To my surprise, the exercises were intense in that 10-minute barre class, and I loved how rewarding it felt to be done after such a short time.
I woke up the next day actually excited to pick out a quick workout class to do, and I knew I was hooked on my newfound discovery of short workouts. And it wasn’t just barre. Soon I was googling “10-minute yoga,” “quick Zumba workout,” and even “super-short boxing at home with no equipment.”
My switch to these mini classes couldn’t have come at a better time. Reeling from the stress and exhaustion of nine months of a global pandemic, I hadn’t realized how much my body was craving a break from the same old routines I had been putting it through all these months of quarantine. A short workout felt revolutionary—a way to treat myself with kindness and compassion, while continuing to make moving my body a priority. I decided short workouts were the way of my future. I set a goal for myself: I would exercise every morning for 10 minutes, and for no more than 10 minutes. Then I’d cross that off my list and get on with my day.
Committing to such a short amount of time made getting started a lot less daunting, and I was able to stick with it. I began to notice changes quickly: Just a few weeks into my new practice, I noticed I felt less sluggish during the day, my stress had decreased, and I felt generally happier and less restless. I also noticed I felt stronger—my quads can now hold a wall sit longer than they ever have (and I’ve been trying for so long to hold a decent wall sit), I’m less out of breath, and my legs twitch less during hard yoga poses, which I’ll count as a win. And crucially, I have stopped dreading my workouts.
It’s a huge shift from how I felt before. During this experiment (three months and counting!), I have now come to cherish and look forward to those 10 minutes in the morning. It’s no longer a battle between me and my schedule, trying to block out a huge chunk of time to make enough minutes in the day for a circuit I wasn’t that into anyway. Now it’s my time, a space for me to connect with my body, give it what it needs without asking for anything more, and feel ready for the day ahead.
I’d consider my test run a total win, especially at a time when looking forward to anything is an impossible task of its own. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. A sustainable practice is easier to keep up long-term.
“When we set the threshold at 30, 60, 90 minutes of movement, it can be overwhelming,” Lauren Leavell, a NASM-certified personal trainer and certified barre instructor in Philadelphia, tells SELF. “People may opt out completely if they cannot meet that ‘requirement.’”
By saying “10 minutes is enough,” you open up more opportunities to get moving. Say, for instance, those days when life gets in the way and you don’t have the time available to devote to your normal workout. You may have been tempted to skip it completely, but by focusing on the 10 minutes you do have, you’ve given your body some time to move instead of none.
Eventually you may use those 10 minutes as a jumping off point to longer workouts—or you may stick with what’s working, Brittany Overstreet, Ph.D., a certified clinical exercise physiologist and assistant professor of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Delaware, tells SELF. “Think big picture, as in total volume (minutes) per week, instead of putting so much pressure on yourself in a day-to-day scenario,” she says.
2. Short workouts can be intense—in a good way.
It’s a personal preference, but I love to feel my muscles get really worked up in order to deem an exercise worth going back to again and again. Blame years of Pilates, but it’s easy to start chasing the burn once you’ve experienced the high that comes with it.
I was initially worried this wouldn’t be possible in such a short time, but I’ve learned that short workouts can be just as powerful as longer sets—if not more so. (That first barre class, with its moves like “narrow V” and toe taps, proved that.) With many of these short workouts, you’re encouraged to go hard; some even incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT) into the mix. With HIIT, you alternate short bursts of max effort with periods of lower activity or recovery. “HIIT is a classic for cardio,” says Leavell. “It will get your heart rate up in a short amount of time.” It is, however, meant to be performed with intentional breaks for maximum efficiency, she says, so be wary of dragging this type of exercise out for longer periods of time, which won’t make it any more efficient (10 minutes is actually ideal here for me!).
3. But they don’t have to be intense all the time.
In fact, they shouldn’t be. Even if your workouts are short, you still shouldn’t be pushing to your limit every time, and you definitely don’t need to be doing HIIT workouts every day.
One thing I’ve really started to enjoy sometimes is using that whole 10 minutes to focus on just stretching and moving my body, something I now find just as useful as traditional strength training or HIIT. Recovery is key—you can’t go hard all the time.
Leavell recommends a mobility routine, which focuses on things like injury prevention and easing muscle tightness induced by holding static positions (such as working at a computer or watching TV), to help your muscles move through their range of motion. Of course, this isn’t going to elevate your heart rate as much as an actual workout, says Leavell. But the goal is moving your body in a practical way—and recovery and mobility are very, very practical.
4. Don’t underestimate the health benefits of a short time commitment.
As HIIT has grown in popularity, so have the number of studies looking into the health benefits of it, especially when compared to longer, more traditional exercise modalities. And science has been pretty clear that short bursts of intense activity, especially when you’re really working hard, can bring some serious benefits—studies have found it helps with everything from insulin sensitivity to how efficiently you consume oxygen during exercise.
5. Finding a routine that works for you should really be the ultimate goal.
“If you’re stressed about having to get through your exercise routine, the benefits of the exercise are likely lost in the physical and psychological toll of that stress,” says Janell Mensinger, Ph.D., FAED, an associate research professor at Villanova University whose areas of expertise include eating disorders, the impact of weight stigma and chronic stress on health outcomes, and health equity in underrepresented populations.
For me, this was never truer than at the end of last year, just before embarking on my experiment. The combination of winter blues, low energy, and pandemic stress, plus the fact that I don’t enjoy running in the cold and was left with home workouts as my only option, meant that I was only working out because I felt guilty not doing it—not because I was getting any enjoyment from it. I now know it can feel good to move my body, and I don’t feel as stressed in the run-up to it or when I think about how to plan my workouts around my morning routine. Something as simple as shortening their length can do wonders for our ability to embrace workouts: “Just as with any goal-setting practice,” says Dr. Mensinger, the more we simplify our goals, “the easier it is to stop the why-even-try effect from kicking in.” And the easier it gets, in turn, to start enjoying them!
This isn’t to say you absolutely have to look forward to every single workout you plan, but by consistently burning out and only going through the motions, you might be losing out on some of the benefits of all those feel-good workout endorphins flooding your body. Choosing a routine that’s more suited to you and your needs is likely to lessen the stress you might feel around working out.
6. Short sets make the most of your workout time.
Before my 10-minute workout experiment, I’d estimate I used to spend half my scheduled workout time procrastinating and not actually moving my body—which in turn prolonged the whole thing and made it even harder to stick to. Staring at the ceiling, spending five minutes changing the music, getting distracted by notifications, even pausing for a snack. I’ve done it all.
But since abandoning longer workouts for shorter sessions, I’ve been more focused and intentional with my exercises. That 10 minutes is enough to do different types of sets and exercises but not enough to procrastinate in between repetitions. I’ve also noticed my form has improved—because I know I won’t have to do any single move for too long, I’m able to give it my all and execute it perfectly.
7. Mini sessions give you the opportunity to try new things.
After trying my first 10-minute barre class, I realized it was the perfect combination of intensity and fun that I’d been looking for. The tiny, dancelike movements introduced me to muscles I didn’t even know I had.
This discovery opened my eyes to a whole new fitness world. My new saying is, “If it’s under or around 10 minutes, I’ll try it.” That has introduced me to variations on my old circuit moves (think burpees, skier abs, jump squats), a 10-minute cardio dance abs workout, running in place (surprisingly hard), and something called the Lazy Girl Workout.
“Adjustments are easiest to make in small increments,” says Dr. Mensinger. So if you are worried about trying something because you think you may not like it, you’d only have 10 minutes—a pretty small time commitment—with it if that turns out to be the case.
8. Moving your body should be fun.
“Many different kinds of movement, not just intense workouts, release endorphins,” says Dr. Mensinger, “and that becomes positively reinforcing.” These endorphins, she says, are key to making your habit self-sustaining.
That’s why on some days I’ve spent 10 minutes just dancing around in my living room to a loud pop song. It works me up and it’s fun, which is key. And I think we need all the endorphins we can get these days, don’t you?
9. Short workouts help me ease up on the comparison game.
Personally, since I started my new practice, I have never felt more free from the messages of “going hard” and “never quitting” that often populate my Instagram feed. I used to push myself too hard on the treadmill knowing I was well past my threshold after 45 minutes, and I know the pressure to do so originated more from the photos I compared myself with on Instagram than it did a healthy desire to stay active. I hate to admit it, but more than once I’ve tried to outdo someone else’s screenshot of race times or kept going only to post my own brilliant results, and that’s just not the kind of energy we should be bringing to the table.
While I’m not swearing off longer sessions altogether, from now on I intend to be a lot more intentional about their frequency and necessity.
10. The pandemic changed exercise—and that’s okay.
By last summer the sight of my yoga mat propped up in the kitchen started to make me feel sick—it was yet another reminder of things I couldn’t do unless I did them in my house. But if we’ve learned anything at all from the past year, it’s to be kind to ourselves when things don’t go to plan, and to play it by ear when it comes to the routines that shape our lives. That might mean encouraging flexibility, and looking to shorter exercise bouts as a way to squeeze some physical activity in, even if you don’t have time (or mental health space) for a longer workout, says Dr. Overstreet. This mentality took a lot of pressure off planning for longer workouts, and it accounted for the many times I just would not have energy to go through with anything long.
After all, we’ve done our fair share of adjusting since last March, and while it was not under ideal circumstances, we’ve all learned that structuring our lives in a more compassionate, purposeful, and supportive way can pay off.