Time Can Be a Barrier to Exercise. Clinicians Can Help Patients Overcome It

By Alexandra Larcom MPH, RD, LDN, Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy at IHRSA

Lack of time is one of the most commonly cited barriers to physical activity.

The good news is, research shows it is possible for a person to improve their health by incorporating even a small amount of exercise into their daily routine. Health professionals can share these three key facts about physical activity with patients to help encourage them to meet the recommendations in the Physical Activity Guidelines.

Shorter bouts of exercise are just as good as one longer bout

According to 2013 research published in Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, completing three, 10-minute bouts of exercise produced similar effects on cholesterol, BMI, and Framingham heart risk as did one sustained 30-minute bout of exercise. A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found the same: mortality risk reduction was achieved independently of how exercise was accumulated—be it in bouts of 5-10 minutes or all at once. For someone who doesn’t have a 30-minute portion of the day free but has a few minutes here and there, this is great news. Three 10-minute walks, five minutes of jumping jacks and calisthenics every hour during the workday, or a 30-minute run can all confer the same benefits.


Higher intensity exercise requires a lower time commitment for similar benefits

Group Exercise Class

It’s important to remember that the recommended weekly amount of physical activity according to the Physical Activity Guidelines can be achieved with moderate intensity (150 minutes) or vigorous intensity (75 minutes) activity. Vigorous exercises include things like running, cycling 10 miles per hour or faster, singles tennis, aerobic dance, or hiking uphill. According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, accumulating 13-26 MET hours/week, achieved either by moderate activity like walking for 150 minutes per week or vigorous activity like jogging for 75, is associated with weight loss of 1-3 percent of body weight. Research has also suggested shorter, higher intensity workouts can produce similar results for fat loss and cardiovascular fitness in obese adults, and statistically significant differences in total body mass, fat mass, and fasting plasma insulin levels in healthy young women as longer, continuous aerobic workouts.


Some activity is better than none

While the Physical Activity Guidelines recommend adults do 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity) aerobic physical activity, it’s important to remember that even smaller amounts can still achieve some beneficial effects. According to a report from the American College of Cardiology Sports and Exercise Cardiology Council, exercise in amounts lower than the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines recommendations still produced significant reductions in mortality. And according to research shared by the European Heart Journal in 2017, exercise amounts equivalent to a 15 minutes brisk walk daily lowered all cause mortality risk by 22 percent and cardiovascular mortality risk by 25 percent in adults over age 60. Additionally, muscle-strengthening activities are an important part of the Physical Activity Guidelines. A 2017 Mayo Clinic Proceedings study found that people who completed an hour of resistance training weekly had a 29 percent lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome than non-exercisers.

Remind your patients that the fact that they might not be able to achieve the amounts recommended in the Physical Activity Guidelines should not discourage them from finding time to move when they can.

It’s worth noting that for weight loss, more exercise may be needed to see results. According to the National Weight Control Registry, 90 percent of people who lost weight and kept it off long-term exercised on average about an hour each day.


Creative tips for patients to fit in more physical activity

Sometimes rules about healthy behaviors can feel ingrained. However, there are some creative ways people can find time for health-benefiting movement in shorter time periods. Add these into your next patient conversation about physical activity.

  • Build in activity breaks. Try to avoid inactivity by regularly building in activity time. Set a timer on your watch, or use an app on your phone to remind you to get up and move every hour.
  • Be creative. People can get active wherever they go. Counsel patients and clients to consider creative ways to squeeze in activity – even on a business trip or to their child’s soccer game. For example, a Tabata circuit (8 rounds of 20 seconds of activity and 10 second of rest) could be done with exercises like lunges, pushups, jumping jacks, sit ups, and more. Several circuits can be done in a hotel room on a business trip. On the sidelines, parents could select an exercise and complete it every time a goal is scored or the ball changes teams. They could also jog around the field – either steady state, or in intervals with walking and jogging or running, during half time. Another idea: people can try a new workout app; some highlight sessions as short as seven minutes, which can easily be used on the go.
  • Find options that work. Fitness facilities in the area often offer day passes or a la carte classes, and in areas near a lot of businesses, some classes are as short as 30 minutes. For many people, paying ahead of time for a class can add additional motivation to follow through and attend.
  • Incorporate exercise into everyday play. Ten minutes spent playing tag as a family is a great way to get in some extra movement.
  • Be active on the go. When you’re out and about walking, parking farther away, or getting off the bus/train a stop early can add a few more minutes of activity to the day.


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