woman running up stairs

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Great news for those who know they have to get in better shape but don’t have a lot of time to exercise: Less is more.

The best way to maximize your workout if you’re short on time is to do shorter bursts of moderate to moderately vigorous exercise. There are highly effective and relatively simple exercises you can do that will help you burn more fat than if you were to do a much longer workout, say a 60-minute jog.

More research is confirming that shorter bursts of exercise help you burn more fat. One Japanese study in the Journal of Applied Physiology concluded, “[R]epeated bouts of exercise cause[d] enhanced fat metabolism compared with a single bout of prolonged exercise of equivalent total exercise duration.”

To maximize your short workouts, follow these principles:

  • Pick movements/exercises that utilize as many major muscle groups as possible
  • Allow your heart rate to elevate at a level where maintaining a conversation is slightly difficult (with your doctor’s clearance and after you’ve built up to that level)
  • Let your heart rate come down until you feel almost fully recovered
  • Perform movements that combine strengthening and stretching, and stimulate the cardiovascular system
  • Challenge yourself but don’t exercise to exhaustion as that will stress your body [Related: 16 signs you’re working out too hard]
The 3-5 minute warm-up

Warm up by moving major joints around in different directions such as hip circles, arm swings, knee lifts, ballet leg swings, shoulder rotations, etc. These movements are called dynamic stretches and will help lubricate the joints better than stationary or static stretching. (Static stretching will not hinder muscle performance, contrary to some contemporary studies, but only if the stretches are under 60 seconds, so says one study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.)

The 15-minute workout

After your dynamic warm-up, climb a deep flight of stairs. Skip every other step and make sure you are pushing off with your entire foot and activating the buttocks and hips as you push off. If your heart is pounding at the top, rest for 30 seconds until your breathing is back to normal or almost back to normal. Perform a set of pushups until near failure at the top of the steps (modified if necessary, for example, on the knees). Run back down the stairs. Immediately come back up.

When you have worked up to it, try sprinting up a segment of steps until your breathing is significantly labored. Pause, whether it’s quarter-way or halfway up the steps, if you’re out of breath. Rest. Repeat until you reach the top. Repeat pushups. Do this for 15 minutes and you’ll feel like you’ve been at the gym for an hour.

Alternatives: rope jumping to a count of 100, then perform a downward dog yoga stretch, then do bodyweight squats, followed by cat-cow yoga stretch. Repeat for several cycles.

The 30-minute workout

You can simply choose to do additional cycles of the 15-minute workout; you’ll certainly get in better shape once you’ve gotten used to the 15-minute short burst workout. Or you can perform the first 15 minutes doing short bursts of bodyweight strengthening exercises followed by 15 minutes of power yoga. For example, 15 minutes of pushups, dips, squats and lunges, then, 15 minutes of sun salutations or eccentric (lowering phase) pushups to a jump-to-standing position. After 25 minutes of this, you’ll feel spent. Take the last 5 minutes to do static stretching.

The 45-minute workout

If you have 45 minutes or longer to exercise, you’ll still want to interval train, i.e. get your heart rate up, way up, to about 160 to 180-plus beats per minute (bpm) and then let your heart rate gradually drop to, say, 100 bpm. Sprints are excellent for fat burning and increasing your lung capacity. Rather than jogging for 45 minutes — which might seem like a great fitness activity — vary your speeds from sprinting to slow jogs and you’ll maximize your workout. Every few minutes, drop to the ground and crank out a set of pushups.

Got any other ways to maximize your workout if you’re short on time? Write a comment.

Judd Handler is author of "Living Healthy: 10 Steps to Looking Younger, Losing Weight and Feeling Great" and can be reached at CoachJudd@gmail.com

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