Can 20 Minutes of Exercise Each Day Get You in Shape?
Yes, depending on which exercises you do.
If someone is trying to optimize personal wellness, there are so many metrics to pay attention to, not least of which is exercise. The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggests that 150 minutes each week (that’s 20 minutes each day) of exercise is beneficial for the body and mind. And a study by the Boston University School of Medicine found that just 20 minutes of low-to-medium exercise each day can measurably improve cognitive function.
But what about getting in shape? Is the required bare minimum enough to make a difference? We went to the experts to find out how much exercise (and what kind) is needed to get in shape and reap maximum health benefits. Read on to learn more.
Now’s The Time
We’re all busy. It’s easy to make excuses not to workout. But when the experts say just 20 minutes of exercise is all that’s needed, it’s hard not to take note. “Rather than finding time to work out, we need to make time,” says personal trainer Lela Aylin. “During the pandemic, we had to adjust to new daily routines. Taking care of our health is something that needs to stay at the top of our priority lists because we all know how valuable our health is—physically, mentally and emotionally.”
“For some reason, we think we have to work out an hour a day to get in shape,” says Todd McCullough, founder of TMAC Fitness. “It's simply not true. I’ve helped thousands of busy parents with my 20-minute home workout program who are now in better shape than they were in high school. Still think you don't have time? Check how much time you spend on social media. Now put that towards exercise.”
Aylin says a person’s existing fitness level does not determine how much or little they need to exercise. “The idea is to make your heart pump, flush your blood and lift weight amounts that tear the muscle fibers,” she says. “If you're in great shape, you can get your heart rate up in a high-intensity weight training workout to push your limits. If you’re not in great shape, you may take more time to complete exercises but you can still get your heart rate up with cardio or strength training.”
Cardio or Strength Training: Which is Best?
Some of us love running or dancing; others prefer weight lifting and training. If you only have 20 minutes to exercise, is one type better than the other? Not necessarily, says Aylin. “Cardio and strength training can both be done together in 20 minutes,” she says. “If you do enough strength exercises, you can elevate your heart rate similar to a cardio workout. It’s more about your goals. A new mother, for example, may need to carefully build up strength, mobility and flexibility with body weight movements from yoga or Pilates. For someone with no physical limitations or injuries, alternating days of high intensity cardio with strength training is a safe place to be.”
McCullough likes HIIT training for energy output versus time. That being said, he wouldn’t suggest doing HIIT every day. “Mix in yoga, cardio and strength training,” he says. “And always make sure you warm up before doing any type of strength training.”
You don’t have to do 20 minutes of exercise in one solid chunk to reap the health benefits, either. Think about splitting fitness up into 5-minute increments and incorporating it into activities you might already be doing throughout the day (like cooking or brushing your teeth). “This is where creativity meets practicality,” Aylin says. “Do a wall sit while brushing your teeth, a plank while doing a puzzle on the floor with your kid or push-ups while you wait for a pan to heat up.”
Don’t Forget About Your Plate
If you’re exercising for at least 20 minutes each day but not seeing results or getting into the shape you want, Aylin says it might be worth taking a closer look at what and when you’re eating. “Consider the timing of meals,” she says. “Eating too much in one sitting or an imbalance of fat, protein and carbs can lead to improper utilization of the muscles. Think about your muscles working all day long to keep you standing, sitting and walking. You have to nourish your body to make it feel good.”
Aylin says a good rule of thumb is that for every hour before a workout, eat 100 calories and make it a combination of carbs and protein. After a workout, she recommends refueling muscles within one hour. “It is absolutely crucial to supply your muscles with a small portion of simple carbs (like fruit) and protein (like yogurt, hummus or edamame) directly after a workout,” she says.
“You can’t out-train a bad diet,” McCullough says. “But if you’re not seeing the results you want, think about your stress levels, which can lead to weight gain. You want to make sure you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep, too. And if you’re still having trouble, maybe get some labs done by a functional medicine doctor to see if a hormonal imbalance is to blame.”
Q: When’s the best time of day to work out?
A: “I’m a fan of moving first thing in the morning because working out is an opportunity to be in a positive mindset before tackling the day,” says McCullough. “You can program your mind for positivity or stress. And by stress, I mean, social media, email, that kind of thing. The choice is yours. You control your morning.”
Q: If we don’t know how to move our bodies for 20 minutes, where can we start?
A: “Movement creates energy,” McCullough says. “Think about a jog, yoga, weight lifting, surfing, hiking, etc. Just do something you enjoy and will consistently do.”
Q: If we’re having a hard time getting off the couch, what are some tips to get inspired?
● Listen to some heart-pumping music to ramp up your energy.
● Watch videos of exercises and try one set of each to learn new movements.
● Take your dog (or child) for a walk and add some lunges on the route.
● Rearrange a room to get your blood moving and then squat-lift any heavier items.
Another great way to get inspired? New gear. And we’ve got you covered.