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Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954, holds the stop watch used by Harold Abrahams to time the race during 50th anniversary celebrations at Pembroke College, Oxford, May 6, 2004. Sir Roger was a 25-year-old medical student when he recorded a time of 3:59.4 for the mile on May 6, 1954.DAVID BEBBER/Reuters

Roger Bannister discovered in the 1950s as a busy young medical student that "interval training" (running hard, running easy, running hard) could make his lunch-hour workouts more efficient. In 1954 that self-devised training program helped him run the first four-minute mile.

A variation on the Roger Bannister story is happening today, as a private fitness centre for "high-performing professionals" in Orlando has developed a seven-minute workout based on the notion that intensity matters more than duration. If it no longer matters how long you work out for, just how hard you're breathing, people's lives (or at least their bodies and their health) could be transformed, assuming they don't mind a hard-breathing, seven-minute workout.

In fact the seven-minute workout is really, for most people, a 14- or 21-minute workout, because most people can't do the exercises as intensely as they need to be done to produce the sought-after health benefits, and should repeat them, says an article in the American College of Sports Medicine's Health & Fitness Journal. (Some athletes, though, can benefit from a four-minute workout, the article says.)

Even at 20 minutes a day a few times a week, it's more efficient and achievable than current Canadian guidelines suggest is possible. (U.S. guidelines already allow for 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise.) And all it takes is one's own body weight, a chair and a wall – no fitness membership, no travel time, no equipment.

One of the worst things to happen to physical fitness may be the government activity guidelines that tell Canadians how much they need to exercise each week: 150 minutes. It's not enough to jog, say, 15 minutes a day, three times a week. No wonder many people tune out the fitness experts.

The seven-minute workout draws on research from kinesiologist Martin Gibala and others at McMaster University in Hamilton, who found extremely intense, but short workouts, can produce large benefits for heart, lungs, muscles and the metabolic system, even for people with heart problems or diabetes. (But see a doctor first.) He is preparing to study a five-minute bike workout – though don't forget to add a minute or two at either end for a warmup and a cool-down.

Dr. Gibala mentions a long-term Copenhagen study that found, over 20 years, cyclists who went fast lived on average five years longer than cyclists who went slow, regardless of how long they cycled.

Roger Bannister, who carried the Olympic torch at the 2012 London Games, may yet live to see the four-minute workout become routine.

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