A few quick exercises can dramatically boost your fitness and sense of well-being
We have a fabulous family doctor who’s always looking for creative solutions to her patients’ health needs.
On a recent visit, she suggested to my harried school-teacher husband that he give the 7-Minute Workout a try, since he was having trouble making time to get to the gym.
While I’d seen an article in The New York Times a while ago touting the benefits of the 7-Minute Workout, I hadn’t done much reading on it.
So, in the interest of science, we tried it a few times together, and I did some additional research, which I’ll highlight below.
The 7-minute workout was developed by researchers at the Human Performance Institute, a Johnson & Johnson company, and it’s based on the concept of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Let's take a quick look at the evidence for the bountiful health benefits of HIIT. (Feel free to skip ahead to the how-to part, covered in "Johnson & Johnson’s 7-Minute Workout" and "Download an app", below.)
The science behind HIIT
High-intensity interval training or HIIT is simply quick bursts of hard exercise separated by very short rests.
Perhaps the most commonly performed HIIT consists of sprinting to near-exhaustion, taking a brief, brisk walk, and repeating that cycle for about 20 minutes.
But there's also an indoor form of HIIT — sometimes called "high-intensity circuit training" or HICT — which is our focus today
Research indicates that HIIT and HICT workouts can boost your aerobic health more quickly, compared with moderate workouts.
A widely reported Japanese study found a four-minute HIIT workout as effective as a 60-minute "endurance training" workout of moderate intensity, such as running at a moderate pace (Tabata I et al. 1996).
And a meta-analysis published in 2015 by a joint Croatian-British team confirmed similar benefits.
The Croatian-British group looked at 28 studies — involving 732 participants — that focused on high-intensity interval training and oxygen consumption, or VO2, which measures the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles (Milanović Z et al. 2015).
(The higher the VO2 score, the better your aerobic capacity. Predictably, VO2 levels decline with age and/or lack of fitness, and improve with cardio conditioning.)
The Croatian-British team found that while endurance training and HIIT both improved VO2 levels over in healthy young to middle-aged adults, the gains in VO2 levels were consistently better in the HIIT groups.
A separate 2015 evidence review by Australian researchers focused on the effectiveness of HIIT for improving vascular function (Ramos JS et al. 2015).
Poor vascular function often precedes and promotes hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis), which significantly raises your risk for heart attack, stroke, or even sudden cardiac death.
The Australian researchers speculated that HIIT might beat moderate-intensity workouts — also known as MICT, or moderate-intensity continuous training — for improving vascular health.
The Aussies examined seven trials with 182 participants. Overall, the results found HIIT more effective than MICT for at improving vascular function.
The researchers presumed that this advantage stemmed in part from HIIT's ability to reduce inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity.
The Australian team concluded that doing HIIT three times per week for at least 12 weeks is a “powerful form of exercise to enhance vascular function.”
And, as they might’ve added, it’s very likely to make you feel stronger, increase your endurance, and improve your mood.
Johnson & Johnson’s 7-Minute Workout
Chris Jordan — the co-creator of the 7-Minute Workout — is the Director of Exercise Physiology at Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute.
The Johnson & Johnson group refers to their plan — which features at-home exercise that exploit your own body weight to work muscles — as “high-intensity circuit training”, or HICT.
The 7-minute HICT workout created by Jordan’s team is based on five core principles:
- No gear required: Other than a wall and a chair, the 7-minute workout requires no special equipment, so you can do it anytime, anywhere.
- Combine aerobic and strength training: Some of the activities, such as jumping jacks and step-ups, are intended to elevate your heart rate, while others, such as push-ups and crunches, target specific muscle groups for building strength.
- High intensity = less time: The workouts are intended to be done at a high-level of intensity (they should feel very hard to you) — basically as hard as you can exercise safely.
- Organization: To keep workouts safe and challenging, they’re organized in a very specific order, moving from aerobic exercises that elevate the heart rate, to lower body exercises, to upper body, then lastly to core. By alternating muscle groups, parts of you can “recover” while others are worked intensely.
- Little rest: The idea is to keep moving, with only brief rests between the exercises. This approach keeps the intensity high for maximum results in the shortest time.
Click here to download the J&J 7 Minute Workout app, and click here to see a New York Times article about the J&J 7-minute workout, which includes illustrations showing the included exercises, and links to a free downloadable mobile app.
As Jordan and a colleague wrote, the evidence shows that “HICT can be a fast and efficient way to lose excess body weight and body fat … [and] …elicit aerobic and metabolic benefits. Research has found that these metabolic benefits can be present for up to 72 hours after a high-intensity exercise bout has been completed.” (Klika B, Jordan C 2013)
After looking at all of the extent research on high-intensity workouts, they came to two simple — and encouraging — conclusions:
- Time limitations and access to equipment keep many people from exercising.
- A high-intensity circuit workout “seems to deliver numerous health benefits in less time than more traditional programs that are recommended. Furthermore, body weight can be used as resistance, eliminating the need for specialized facilities or equipment.”
Download an app and get started
After reading all about HIIT, HICT, and the 7-Minute Workout, we were eager to give it a try.
And there are several excellent (and free!) apps for your smart device, including one created by the Johnson & Johnson team — which received the best review from several journalists who tried several different ones.
If you have difficulty performing the J&J 7-Minute Workout as described in The New York Times, they recently published a version designed to be easier for people who are older or who have physical limitations.
Most apps give you the option of doing the original core workout, plus workout variations that are lower-impact, higher-intensity, with warm-up and cool-down added on, even versions that allow you to add your own background music.
The apps guide you through the circuit of 12 simple-yet-challenging exercises. If you’ve ever had a fitness class of any kind, the activities themselves are very straight forward, and every app I tried had voice guidance as well as visual cues:
- Jumping jacks (total body)
- Wall sit (lower body)
- Push-ups (upper body)
- Abdominal crunches (core)
- Step-ups onto chair (total body)
- Squats (lower body)
- Triceps dips (upper body)
- Plank (core)
- High knees (total body)
- Lunges (lower body)
- Push-ups with rotation (upper body)
- Side plank (core)
As easy as this looks on paper, done in short succession with very little rest time, these are challenging ... truly!
It’s a remarkably intense workout in a short time, and if my experience is at all typical, it takes some time to recover from. I was sore the next day, and have found that an every-other-day approach works best for me.
If you have joints that ache with high-intensity moves, there are versions that eliminate bouncing activities (such as jumping jacks) for similarly challenging, lower-impact moves. I found the “alternate beginner” workouts best suited for me, and my knees complained less after the fact.
I hope you’ll give the 7-Minute Workout a try.
You’ll likely feel like we did – we went from “this isn’t so bad,” to “oh, wow!” to “when is it over?!?” pretty quickly during the 13-minute workout (we added 6 minutes’ worth of optional warm-up and cool-down), yet we came back for more again and again because you feel wonderful once it’s over.
To find an app that suits your style, simply search for “7 minute workout” and you’ll find a number of appealing options, some free, some quite affordable.
All offer the original workout outlined above, with a number of options to customize based on your needs and preferences.
Please send me a note and let me know if you try the 7-Minute Workout and if you’re likely to add it to your fitness regimen.
It’s a great option for days when you’re short on time (or equipment) but want to get in some effective exercise!
- Klika B, Jordan C. High-Intensity Circuit Training Using Body Weight: Maximum Results with Minimal Investment. ACSM'S Health & Fitness Journal: ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal 17.3 (2013): 8-13. doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31828cb1e8
- Milanović Z, Sporiš G, Weston M. Effectiveness of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIT) and Continuous Endurance Training for VO2max Improvements: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. Sports Med. 2015 Oct;45(10):1469-81. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0365-0. Review. PubMed PMID: 26243014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26243014
- Ramos JS, Dalleck LC, Tjonna AE, Beetham KS, Coombes JS. The impact of high-intensity interval training versus moderate-intensity continuous training on vascular function: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2015 May;45(5):679-92. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0321-z. Review. PubMed PMID: 25771785. Https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25771785
- Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, Hirai Y, Ogita F, Miyachi M, Yamamoto K. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30. PubMed PMID: 8897392.
- Taylor J, Macpherson T, Spears I, Weston M. The effects of repeated-sprint training on field-based fitness measures: a meta-analysis of controlled and non-controlled trials. Sports Med. 2015 Jun;45(6):881-91. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0324-9. Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25790793
- Weston M, Taylor KL, Batterham AM, Hopkins WG. Effects of low-volume high-intensity interval training (HIT) on fitness in adults: a meta-analysis of controlled and non-controlled trials. Sports Med. 2014 Jul;44(7):1005-17. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0180-z. Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24743927