If you’re someone who doesn’t seem to have enough time in the day to exercise, allow us to share the good news: science says a quick session is all you need.

Feeling a bit sluggish on the exercise front lately? Well, recent research might just kick your motivation into high gear. Turns out the real game changer for your health, according to new research, isn’t slogging it out for hours on end, but rather minutes – 20 to be exact.

Body+Soul reports that according to a new mega-study out of Sweden and Norway, spending just one-third of an hour brisk walking, jogging or cycling fast enough to make you breathe harder each day can slash your risk of disease and boost longevity.

The proof? Scientists fitted out nearly 12,000 people aged 50-plus with hip monitors that tracked their movements for 10 hours a day over a span of at least two years for a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. What they discovered is that those who sat for 12 hours daily faced a 38 per cent higher risk of kicking the bucket compared to their more active counterparts.

But here’s the kicker: this spike in risk was only seen in those who squeezed in less than 22 minutes of activity every day. Yes, less.

This is the principle that underpins a novel (and very doable) new approach to fitness unveiled by world-renowned expert Jens Bangsbo, a professor of human physiology and exercise physiology at the University of Copenhagen. His method, he claims, is as effective in improving health and fitness as traditional high-intensity interval training (HIIT), only far less intense.

And the way it works couldn’t be simpler. Bangsbo’s method involves doing 30 seconds of easy jogging, followed by 20 seconds of moderate pace, and topped off with a 10-second burst of near-max intensity – which requires a flat-out, lung-busting sprint. The ultimate goal is to build up the repetitions to a total of 20 minutes, recovery breaks included, two to three times a week. Achieve that, he says, and not only will your running speed improve after just six weeks, but your blood pressure and cholesterol levels might just reap benefits, too.

“In previous studies we have shown that the blood sugar levels of type 2 diabetes patients were also reduced with this approach, resulting in better blood glucose control,” Bangsbo explains. “That was not the case with a control group [who were] doing moderate exercise at a fourfold greater volume [as in gentler exercise for longer].”

Another study, done at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, found that one 20-minute session of moderate exercise can do wonders for your immune system by triggering a beneficial anti-inflammatory response in the body. Why’s that a big deal? Because it acts as a shield against arthritis, fibromyalgia and conditions related to obesity.

In more good news, just last year, another study cited in Heart journal found that 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous daily exercise is the ideal amount needed by people in their 70s to ward off heart disease by their 80s. It all adds up to powerful stuff, right? But how.

It’s what happens during those precisely 1200 seconds of exercise that makes them so potent. “Hormonal message systems start to send responses to the body and brain about adapting to the exercise stimulus,” says Dr Mark Homer, a sports physiologist and senior lecturer in exercise science at Buckinghamshire New University. “Blood flow to the brain increases, which improves thinking and memory. Insulin control improves as you contract some of the body’s largest muscles. And the amount of oxygen your body uses starts to rise, which improves cardiovascular health.”

It also happens to be around the time needed to elicit a so-called runner’s high, the rush of endorphins and endocannabinoids (neurotransmitters responsible for facilitating bodily functions) released into the bloodstream and make us feel good. “It is a phenomenon not exclusive to runners – [it] can affect anyone doing moderate to high-intensity aerobic activity,” says Homer.

Even standing up every 20 minutes makes a difference. “Anything is better than nothing,” Homer adds. “And if you struggle for motivation, there are many ways to make 20 minutes plenty enough. It’s a very good benchmark.” Ready to get moving? Here are some excellent ways to fire things up, fast.
 

Got 20 minutes? Do one of these
Try the 10-20-30 approach

Bangsbo’s form of interval training involves running for 30 seconds at a slow pace, 20 seconds at a moderate pace and 10 seconds at a hard, but not flat-out burst. Same thing goes for cardio on a bike, rower or cross trainer. “Complete beginners should just increase their speed, gradually aiming for 75-80 per cent of maximum speed in the 10-second burst as they get fitter,” he says.

Each interval takes one minute to complete and is initially repeated five times. As you get fitter, add additional five-minute interval blocks, taking a one to four-minute break between them. Ultimately aim to complete four of the five-minute interval blocks. “Beginners will need to do 10-20-30 training twice a week, whereas moderately fit people can try three times a week,” Bangsbo says. Super-fit folks who are used to interval running should do up to four.
 

Lift some heavy weights

Just one weekly 20-minute weights session is enough to boost muscle strength, according to a study led by James Steele, an associate professor of sport and exercise science at Solent University. For his fit20 study, published in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport last year, Steele described how almost 15,000 participants aged 18-80 were tracked for seven years to show that muscle strength can be significantly improved with one 20-minute workout a week.

The approach involved six all-body weights exercises, including chest presses, lateral pulldowns and leg presses, with participants performing a single set of five to six repetitions with as heavy a weight as they could manage. Their body strength improved by 30-50 per cent in a year. “Fifty per cent is a substantial improvement in strength,” Steele says. “But even 30 per cent is a huge improvement that will likely impact people’s lives and health in a very positive way.”
 

Take a brisk power walk

The secret to fitness success? Do more with your 20 minutes than you were doing previously, Homer suggests. “If that is as simple as adding a 20-minute daily walk it will bring benefits to your health.”

In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, psychologists at the University of Michigan asked people to spend 10 minutes or more walking in nature at least three times a week. They found that those who walked for 20 minutes had significantly reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

“A walk will improve your mood and your motivation to do more as you get fitter,” Homer adds. “If you can do it daily, even better.”
 

Do yoga for a brain boost

If you need a mood boost as we head into Autumn, try squeezing in 20 minutes of yoga. A single session that included a variety of seated, standing and lying yoga poses with contraction and relaxation of different muscle groups, as well as breathing or meditative exercises, was shown in a study at the University of Illinois to enhance memory, speed and focus of the brain, improving reaction times and scores in cognitive tasks more effectively than a treadmill walk or run of the same duration. “The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath,” the researchers wrote.
 

Go for a steady run

You don’t need to slog through a marathon or even a 10-kilometre session to give your fitness a serious boost, according to Homer. “Little and often is the recipe for enhancing health through running or any form of exercise. Twenty- or even 10-minute runs a few times a week are a good starting point for many people.”

The results of an Iowa State University study of 55,000 adults who jogged for five to 10 minutes a day had “markedly reduced risks” for all causes of death over a 15-year period. A win we can all bask in.