The idea of working out less and getting more out of it has undeniable appeal. After all, who wouldn't want to spend less time sweating and straining and more time …well, doing more of whatever it is you like to do?
The good news, experts say, is that not only is this possible, but one key to faster fitness is turning the things you like to do into fitness activities. Walking the dog, playing catch with the kids, or working in your garden can help you reach your fitness goals.
"The goal here is to disguise your exercise," says Barry A. Franklin, PhD, national spokesman for the American Heart Association's Choose to Move program. "We have, as a nation, overemphasized the value of structured exercise and underemphasized the value of lifestyle physical activity as a way to get more fitness into our lives."
Several studies have shown that becoming more active in our daily lives can provide the same benefits -- including improvements in risk factors for heart disease -- as a structured exercise program, says Franklin, director of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise laboratories at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
"You can actually get as much benefit from daily activity as you can by going to a gym -- and maybe more," says Franklin.
Not only that, says physical trainer Dino Novak, ACES, ACSM, but the more you move in your daily life, the more benefits you'll reap from every workout.
"If you are sedentary all week long, when you do hit the gym you've got a lot more ground to cover before you see real progress," says Novak, a master trainer and older adult exercise specialist at the Cooper Institute in Dallas.
In addition, Novak tells WebMD, an active daily life offers fitness advantages you won't find in a gym, no matter how many hours you spend there.
"The whole gym environment, especially if it's machine-based, focuses on very fixed, linear-path movements, but the body doesn't really work that way in real life," says Novak.
For example, he says, if you're walking into the house carrying your dry cleaning, drop your keys, and bend over and turn to pick them up -- all that fixed training you've done in the gym is not going to help much.
"It could even be setting you up for injury if you have muscle imbalances," says Novak.
By putting more activity into your daily life, he says, you'll not only increase your fitness level, but be able to perform routine tasks with more ease – and, possibly, less risk of injury.
Double Up Your Workout
Another way to sneak more fitness into a busy day is to vary the activities you do during your formal workouts.
Too often, experts say, we get stuck in the rut of doing the same exercise over and over -- be it running on a treadmill, doing circuit training or riding a bike. Yet mastering a single workout isn't necessarily the way to increase fitness. In fact, it might even set you back.
"When the body is doing a set rhythm, it expends less energy than when it's forced into multiple movements," says Novak. The more efficient the body gets at an activity, the more energy it conserves -- and the less you get out of your exercise time.
To increase the burn without adding more time on the workout clock, Novak says, vary your activities, and make each movement as complex and as varied as possible.
"For example, instead of just going for a run, do sprints -- and then stop, start, turn, twist," Novak says. "Add motion and movement into your activity and you'll literally keep your body expending the maximum energy."
Another technique, he says, is to vary your workout equipment. For example, during one gym session you might spend 10 minutes on an elliptical trainer, 10 minutes running on the treadmill, 10 minutes jumping rope, and 10 minutes doing strength training. This means your body works harder, and you'll get more out of your exercise session.
For fitness expert John Ellis Spencer, really focusing on your workout is another way to increase the benefits without working out longer. So skip the reading material on the exercise bike, and don't get wrapped up in a TV show while you're on the treadmill.
"Most people think they are working out far more intensely than they really are, and reading a magazine or book while walking on a treadmill or riding a bike encourages a more leisurely pace, so you don't get the maximum benefit from what you are doing," says Ellis, president of the National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association, in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
By paying more attention to your activity -- concentrating on posture, and technique, even speed -- you can dramatically increase the benefits.
Work More, Rest Less
While you may have set aside 60 or even 90 minutes for your weekly workout, experts say it's doubtful you're actually getting that amount of activity. And the more social and crowded your gym is, the more you are likely to get distracted into conversations that take up valuable workout time.
The key, experts say, is to talk less and move more – and to decrease your rest periods between exercises.
"If you don't give your body a chance to recover between exercises, it must get in better condition in order to repair itself for the next bout of activity -- so you're automatically getting more out of each workout," says Spencer.
By decreasing rest periods, you can also do more work in the same amount of time, he says, and that means better (and faster) results.
Even in a 30-minute workout, Novak says, reducing rest periods will also increase your challenge level – which, in turn, will increase your body's ability to recover. So you end up in better shape without increasing your workout time.
"The idea is not to increase intensity, but to challenge your body by forcing it to recover more quickly," says Novak.
Franklin agrees: "A body at rest tends to remain at rest; a body in motion tends to remain in motion. So the more you move in any given time period, the easier it becomes to keep moving."
Workouts That Work Harder
According to the American Heart Association Choose to Move program, certain activities definitely yield more results than others. The general rule of thumb: The more vigorous the activity, the less time you need to do it to get optimum results. And the more leisurely your activity, the longer your exercise session should be.
According to Choose To Move, spending 15 minutes climbing stairs, jumping rope, or sprinting a mile will give you results equal to that of playing volleyball or touch football for 45 minutes, walking 1 3/4 mile in 35 minutes, or dancing fast for 30 minutes. And you'll get the same result from bicycling 4 miles in 15 minutes as from mowing the lawn for 45 minutes.
You don't even have to do the short bouts of exercise all at one time, Franklin says.
"You don't have to put the dollar bill in the piggy bank all at one time -- you can put in four quarters, and get the same benefit -- and exercise is the same way," he says. In fact, Franklin tells WebMD, there is some evidence that several shorter bouts of exercise may be better for reducing body weight and fat than one long workout.
When it comes to working out in the gym, Spencer says you'll get the biggest result from your efforts if you trade in treadmill walking for cycling or spinning.
"If you walk on the treadmill for the same amount of time you cycle, you may build cardiac endurance, but you're not building muscles the way you are when you're spinning," he says.
And, he says, any exercise that conditions the heart while building muscle causes your body to work harder -- even when it's at rest.
By Colette Bouchez, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: American Heart Association web site. Barry A Franklin, PhD, director, Cardiac Rehabilitation and Exercise Laboratories, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; national spokesman, American Heart Association's Choose To Move program. Dino Novak, ACES, ACSM, master trainer and older adult exercise specialist, Cooper Institute, Dallas; author, The Final Makeover. John Ellis Spencer, president, National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.; author, How Badly Do You Want It -- Your Ultimate Guide To Optimal Fitness.