Magic Workouts for Busy People


There has been a lot of research in recent years comparing the health and fitness benefits of small amounts of high-intensity exercise to the benefits of longer bouts of low-intensity exercise. The problem, it is said, is that lots of people who would benefit from more exercise either don’t like it or don’t have the time for it. Such people will never be happy if they are made to trudge through long, boring runs or spend hours on a bike. But what if they could spend a fraction of the time and reap most, if not all, the benefits of slower aerobic exercise? Studies that look at incorporating high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into exercise regimens seem to suggest that a little intensity can be a shortcut to big fitness gains.

But the problem is that intensity is, by definition, hard. Writing for the NY Times Health blog this week, Gretchen Reynolds summarizes the situation succinctly: “…high-intensity interval workouts have a drawback that is seldom acknowledged. Many people don’t like them and soon abandon the program.” If only there was a low-volume, high-intensity workout that was simple to execute, effective in improving fitness, and fun. A workout like that, a workout that kept people coming back for more would be a magic workout, indeed!

You’ve probably guessed by now that Reynolds has news for us. In her latest column (A Way to Get Fit and Also Have Fun), she calls our attention to a new workout recipe, this one called 10-20-30 (or 30-20-10, if you prefer), based on the work of a team of Danish researchers.

The researchers arrived at the recipe after first observing that more traditional programs that incorporated HIIT were effective, but hard to sustain. Specifically, participants would follow them when they were being closely monitored, but abandon them — and their benefits — once they were left on their own. So to counter this, the researchers had subjects do a very simple routine of exercising at a relaxed intensity for 30 seconds, a moderate intensity for 20 seconds, and an all-out high intensity for ten seconds, and then repeat that sequence four more times without interruption. Two sets of this 30-20-10 exercise pattern seemed to confer significant health and fitness benefits, and — crucially — subjects seemed to like it.

Now I have nothing against new exercise routines, and if the 30-20-10 pattern works for some people, well that’s great.

At the same time, there’s something annoying to me about the premise behind the search for magic workouts. The premise, it seems, is that the “problem” to be solved is that hard work is both hard and work. I’m wary of the idea that there’s some trick to exercising, and that if we could discover the trick, we wouldn’t need the time for more gradual aerobic exercise or the traditional despair-inducing interval sessions.

Well, maybe.

I mean, it’s surely possible that those of us who consider ourselves to be serious athletes are stuck in obsolete ways of thinking, or more to the point, that the lessons we have learned about fitness over our lives in athletics are a poor guide for those who just want to get the health benefits of regular exercise. Reynolds isn’t concerned with elite athletes, or even sub-elite active athletes, she’s interested in regular people who are being told to exercise but for various reasons are finding it a chore.

She writes:

“The enticements of this particular program are many. It is easy to remember and low-tech, requiring no gym membership, heart rate monitor, or flow chart, as some complicated interval programs seem to demand. You don’t even need a stopwatch to monitor the 30-, 20-, and 10-second time changes. You can, like me, count to yourself, which seems to make the intervals pass quickly.”

Although I rarely spend much time reading reader comments on articles, I decided to dive in for this one because I sensed that regular people might have the best perspective here. Here are a few comments that caught my attention:

  • “Exercise is exercise. It doesn’t have to be fun. If you think it is supposed to be fun, you will be disappointed every time.”
  • “If you want people to exercise and have fun at the same time, mankind invented something for that thousands of years ago: it’s called sports.”
  • “I know a trick to make this fun. Add in a ball, repeat the 30-20-10 for 30 minutes, rest for 5 minutes, and then do it again for 30 minutes. I like to call it ‘soccer.'”

And so on.

And yet, as of noon on Friday, Reynold’s column was the most-emailed on the NY Times site, so she’s clearly started a conversation, even if she hasn’t convinced me that there is something new or noteworthy in this latest workout wrinkle.

To me, the most telling aside in the article was the observation that led to the conclusion that the 30-20-10 workouts were more fun:

“The running clubs in our study reported much improved social interactions between members” during the workouts, Dr. Bangsbo said, because when the fastest runners turned around after each set of five 10-20-30 sprints, as most did, they found themselves following the slower runners, who had the satisfaction of being in the lead, at least for the moment.

Maybe the magic in these magic workouts is the same magic that inspires activities as crazy and diverse as CrossFit, Color Runs, the November Project, and USATF-NE Grand Prix races — the magic of doing these things with other people.

If so, then I’m going to suggest my own magic formula for physical, mental, and emotional fitness. I’m going to call it 2-5-90: at least twice a week, participate in a physical activity with you and at least four other people, where the activity takes at least ninety minutes (counting warmup, cool-down, and post-activity socializing). You could argue that this might include that group of guys who play bocce down at the park every Saturday and Sunday,and then drink wine together, and my response would be, “what’s your point?”

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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2 Responses to Magic Workouts for Busy People

  1. Brian says:

    The point is that bocce doesn’t increase your VO2 max, reduce your 5K time, and lower your blood pressure.

  2. Jon Waldron says:

    Thanks for the comment, Brian.

    I think the NT Times article is clearly focused on workouts for people who want health benefits but don’t enjoy workouts. I doubt any of these people care about V02 Max or 5K time. Nor do I know of any study that suggests increasing V02 Max or 5k time leads to better health outcome.

    Now blood pressure is another matter. Out of curiosity, why do say that playing bocce DOESN’T reduce blood pressure? I’ll bet it reduces blood pressure at least as well as reading about a workout that one follows once and then never does again. The point I was trying to make is that a pleasant activity with friends that becomes a habit is probably superior (in health terms) to a workout regimen that is never followed.

    Hence, the “magic” isn’t in the workout per se, but in the comaraderie/friendship that keeps you getting up off the couch to do something.

    But then, the joke never seems funny when you have to explain it.

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