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Why the one-minute workout isn’t a farce

At first blush, The One-Minute Workout seems like a flagrantly clickbaity title.

But the book's author, Martin Gibala, chair of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, is no snake-oil salesman. The science here is as sound as it is fascinating.

The theory is straightforward, if counterintuitive: Interval training – short bursts of intense exercise separated by periods of recovery – will get you as fit as long, less-intense exercise at a constant pace. The scientific shorthand is this: The harder you exercise, the more benefit you will get per unit of time.

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A single minute of hard exercising can provide the same benefit as one hour of steady aerobic exercise.

The catch is you have to go hard, where the short bursts are so intense "it feels like your legs are giving birth … like you've got an eight-martini hangover in your calves," to quote Esquire writer A.J. Jacobs.

Also, the one-minute workout actually takes 10 minutes, when you include the warm-up and rest periods.

"Obviously it's a teaser headline, but one that I hope will allow for opportunities to discuss the context and the science," Dr. Gibala says.

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One of the biggest myths about HIIT (the jargon that connoisseurs use to describe high-intensity interval training), he adds, is that it's only for "incredibly fit people working out in gyms in incredibly tight clothing."

Not everyone is a hard-core athlete, and intensity is a relative term, so you should not be dissuaded by the talk of intensity and the colourful descriptions of suffering.

Some of the most fascinating research on interval training has involved cardiovascular patients – everything from heart failure to recovering from bypass surgery. Cardiac patients used to be told to limit activity, but now exercise is a central part of rehab because it helps heal the heart. Yet many cardiac rehab patients cannot walk for 15 to 30 minutes, but they can walk briskly for 30 seconds, then slowly for a couple of minutes, and repeat that task a few times.

One of the key take-homes from Dr. Gibala's research – which has been replicated and built upon by many others – is that the age-old excuse that "I don't have time to exercise" doesn't hold water.

"You don't have to fit your life around your workout. Now, you can fit your workout around your life," is a phrase repeated like a mantra.

Dr. Gibala and others have demonstrated that "exercise snacking" – fitting short periods of activity into your daily routine – provides as much bang for the buck as blocking out a big chunk of time in the gym.

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If you have a pair of walking shoes, a couple of flights of stairs, a bike, or a couple of square metres to do burpees, you can improve your fitness relatively quickly.

Current activity guidelines recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate activity – 30 minutes daily for five days. Dr. Gibala does not pooh-pooh those recommendations. On the contrary, he says they are based on good science.

But, at the same time, he notes that only about 20 per cent of adults meet those minimum standards, and the main reason people give for avoiding exercise is a lack of time. Interval training provides a compelling alternative, or addition.

Dr. Gibala does not dismiss traditional endurance exercise like running, biking and swimming, noting that it has many benefits, like getting outdoors, and is often a social activity done in groups. "The best exercise is the exercise that works for you," he says. "The more menu choices there are, the better."

Personally, he exercises about 30 minutes a day, doing everything from interval training to walking the dog.

For those looking to kick-start their fitness – and February is when those New Year's resolutions start to crumble and gym attendance drops precipitously – The One-Minute Workout actually offers a variety of options, for those looking to go from unfit to fit, from fit to fitter, or just maintain their current level of fitness.

The workouts in the book, of course, come with the proviso that you should consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise program, especially if you are sedentary and have health issues like high blood pressure or diabetes.

The risk of interval training is marginally greater than for endurance exercise – due to its relative intensity. But, as Dr. Maureen MacDonald, a cardiovascular physiologist and a colleague of Dr. Gibala's at McMaster, says: "The biggest risk is not getting off your couch."

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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