Did you hear?... Harvard Health Letter looks at the pros/cons of quickie workouts

Quickie workout fitness centers and books have popped up across the country in the last few years, promising weight loss through brief or "no-sweat" workouts. Although the Harvard Health Letter, published by the Harvard Medical School, acknowledged that brief bouts of activity like the ones promoted by these centers -- think Curves or Blitz -- and books may be worthwhile for some (something is better than nothing), these quickie workouts are shortcuts that most Americans can't afford to take.
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Quickie workout fitness centers and books have popped up across the country in the last few years, promising weight loss through brief or "no-sweat" workouts. Although the Harvard Health Letter, published by the Harvard Medical School, acknowledged that brief bouts of activity like the ones promoted by these centers -- think Curves or Blitz -- and books may be worthwhile for some (something is better than nothing), these quickie workouts are shortcuts that most Americans can't afford to take.

The get-fit-quick plans vary from one to the next and the Harvard Health Letter looked at four specifics:

>> Curves -- With more than 9,000 centers, Curves caters to women and promotes a 30-minute, three-days-a-week mix of aerobic activity, strength training and flexibility exercises.

>> The Blitz -- Targeted mainly to men (but also open to women), it offers a 20-minute, three-times-a-week routine of strength training with boxing and martial arts techniques.

>> "Quick Fit: The Complete 15-Minute No-Sweat Workout" -- This book touts seven-day-a-week workouts featuring a 10-minute brisk walk, four-minute strength training routine and one-minute of stretching exercises to cool down. Authored by Richard Bradley III, the Harvard Health Letter says it's a mini version of the recommendations in the federal guidelines.

>> "8 Minutes in the Morning for Extra-Easy Weight Loss" -- Author Jorge Cruise's book pitches an ultra-short workout -- eight minutes of strength training, six days a week -- using a wide range of motivational techniques.

"Any exercise will get you fitter than you were before," said I-Min Lee, a Harvard Medical School Ph.D. faculty member and internationally acclaimed researcher on the relationship between physical activity and health. She added to her comment in the article that that theory holds true as long as it gives you a higher workload than you're used to.

But research by Lee and her colleagues cast doubt on the value of "no-sweat" workouts, by concluding that mortality was unaffected by light physical activity (less than 4 METS or metabolic equivalents). Moderate activity (at least 4, but less than 6 METs) appeared somewhat beneficial, and vigorous activity (6 METs or more) "clearly predicted lower mortality rates."

The Harvard Health Letter stated the obvious when it said quickie workouts are "obviously" a shortcut. Many don't even meet government-recommended guidelines of 30 minutes of exercise on most days (Curves is the exception, the article noted).

It did give kudos to center-based Curves and Blitz, saying the two provide adequate workout intensity and energy expenditure, and also use a combination of aerobic, strength and flexibility training.

It also said that the "Quick Fit" book offers a good workout that is compact and balanced, but questioned whether 15 minutes a day is really enough. It suggested expanding workout times to at least 30 minutes.

In the doghouse was "8 Minutes in the Morning," saying it had the least to offer because the workouts are too short and not particularly intense. When the book's author pronounced, "Cardiovascular exercise (aerobics) and dieting are out, and strength training is in," the Harvard Health Letter responded with, "Hogwash."

What does it all boil down to? The Harvard Health Letter said the quickie workout programs do over-promise, but also admitted any physical exercise is better than none. It offered up some research from James Hill, head of clinical nutrition research at the University of Colorado and a proponent of the 10,000-steps-a-day system, who said in a 2003 Science magazine article that Americans could avoid weight gain by burning just 100 more calories a day -- and that an extra 15 (not 30) minutes of walking would do.

SNEWS® View: A calorie burned, however, is not necessarily a calorie burned. One could saunter down a mall for a couple of hours to get to 100 calories, but intensity is usually needed to better blood counts and increase heart and lung strength. Also, how many calories a person expends will depend quite a bit on their size. So even brisk walking for 15 minutes for a small person may only use 40 or 50 calories, but a larger person could burn up the 100 or a bit more. Certainly, the "metabolic equivalents" doesn't make a lot of sense to the public, but equipment companies could help explain and equate that in accompanying literature to a perceived feeling, which works best with most consumers.

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