There is an old Italian proverb that reads “One apple a day keeps the doctor away.” I took the liberty to substitute the apple with 160 seconds. Let me tell you why I did so.
The Upsides and the Downsides of Technology
Over the past decades the continuous technology innovations have gradually and constantly made our lives easier, to the point that today we can pursue most of our activities comfortably from home, without lifting our rear ends from the chair or the couch. The first huge innovation I recall from several decades ago was the introduction of the remote control for our TV sets which saved us from standing up and walking to the device every time we wanted to change channel. Since that change, everything started to have its own remote control, from the garage door to the air conditioner.
Then came the internet, which led to further changes in our lifestyle. Initially the introduction of emails saved us from going to the post office and today almost everything we do: work, study, shop, and even our social interactions may happen online, while we sit in front of a screen or lie on a couch with a mobile device in our hand.
All this simplifies our lives and optimizes our time, and now we can accomplish so many different things in one day and we are connected in real time with co-workers, friends, and family worldwide. Those are indeed huge improvements that made our lives easier and the world smaller.
However, every coin has two sides.
All these technological innovations made us more and more physically
inactive1, 2. Most of us spend the majority of the waking hours seated, and this leads to several risk factors, as physical inactivity impairs cardio-metabolic health and it is estimated to cause 16% of all deaths, largely through cardiovascular disease3, 4.
Also, our posture and ability to move well are negatively affected by the increasing number of hours we spend seated. Our ankle, hip, and t-spine mobility degrade; our hips flexors and extensors shorten; our midsection weakens; the physiological curves of our spine alter; etc. In short, bad things happen.
Training Regularly Might Not Be Enough
I know what you are thinking. You believe that all this above doesn’t apply to you because, even though you spend many hours seated, you train on a regular basis several times a week.
I used to think the same way, but I was wrong.
Let’s say that someone trains for one hour every day, is that enough to counterbalance the other 23 hours of inactivity, many of which are spent seated? Some statistics indicate that even those who meet the recommended levels of exercise, typically 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity training, are still at elevated risk of cardiovascular disease if they sit for prolonged periods throughout the day3, 4, 5, 6.
And I can witness this with my personal experience.
During the lockdown imposed by Covid-19 I was prevented from in-person social interactions and from traveling, and in general I wasn’t allowed to leave my house except for essential shopping such as grocery, pharmacy, etc. The good news is that I was able to do basically everything online, the bad news is that I was always seated in front of a screen while I was doing it.
I trained regularly three times per week according to the plans I have outlined in my articles “Simple Strength for Difficult Times: An 8-Week Progressive Plan” and “Simple Strength for Difficult Times Part Two: Get Even Stronger in Quarantine,” and another three times per week I followed the “Timeless Simple & Sinister protocol.”
I also followed a strict diet that allowed me only one cheat meal per week. Still, I gained 8kg (18lb) of bodyweight. Yes, some of that extra weight is certainly made of solid muscle mass, but I can guarantee that a good part of it is undesired extra fat. Before the lockdown I was training only 4 times per week and I was on a much looser diet, but that extra energy expenditure due to the non-training related physical activity I was doing every day was definitely making the difference.
NEAT, an Often Overlooked Factor
What my body was missing during the lockdown was the non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) which is the energy we use for everything we do when we are not sleeping or exercising. Walking our children to school or our dog to the park, walking up and down the stairs, doing some housekeeping work, etc. are all activities that burn calories, and more than we can imagine.
If your occupation implies some sort of physical activity, such as standing, walking, or manual work, it will impact your NEAT greatly. Of course, its intensity is very low, but it is in effect for so many hours every day that it does make the difference. But if we spend our days sitting at our desks, taking calls and exchanging emails, our levels of NEAT go down the drain. And this is what happened to me during the lockdown, but it’s also what happens to those who have sedentary work and spend most of their spare time in front of a screen, no matter if they devote a few hours a week to training.
A large epidemiological study2 estimated that, in order to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting, a person needs to exercise for 60-75 minutes per day at moderate intensity. However, recent papers by Kim et al.7 and Akins et al.8 reported that 60 minutes of running at moderate intensity failed to improve postprandial lipemia following several days of sitting for 13.5-h/day. Postprandial lipemia is a rise in blood triglycerides after meals that research has shown to be correlated with increased risk of progression of coronary artery disease and carotid intimal thickness. The bottom line is that exercising for about one hour isn’t alone enough to counterbalance the negative effects of prolonged daily inactivity and sitting.
How can we enjoy all the comforts of our modern and technologically enhanced lifestyle and at the same time avoid its downsides on our health? One interesting approach is to interrupt our prolonged sitting with periodic bouts of exercise throughout the day. Recent research has found that walking for 1-3 min every 15-30 min has improved postprandial glucose metabolism on the day of the 1-3 min bouts, and postprandial lipemia to on the following day9. An improved glucose metabolism fights abrupt increases in blood sugar levels, reduces the conversion of glucose into triglycerides, stabilizes our energy levels, and minimizes the typical drowsiness we tend to feel after a meal.
But what if, in place of interrupting our prolonged inactivity and sitting with a few minutes of walking, we did it with a few very short bouts of sprints performed at maximal power? Very brief exercise performed with maximal power is capable of activating a large portion of the body muscle mass and activates both type I and type II muscle fibers and all this happens with very little fatigue, which allows for multiple sprints to be performed with a relatively short rest in between.
A couple of months ago Pavel shared an interesting paper with Brett Jones and me which gave me the idea upon which I based the protocol you are about to read. It’s very recent research by the Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education of the University of Texas at Austin titled “Hourly 4-s Sprints Prevent Impairment of Postprandial Fat Metabolism from Inactivity,” accepted for publication on the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in April 202010.
In this trial the subjects participated in two different protocols. The first one consisted of an 8-hour period of sitting in which the subjects were allowed to leave their spot only for short food and bathroom breaks. The second one also consisted of an 8-hour period of sitting but interrupted every hour with five sprints performed at maximal power on a sort of cyclo-ergometer. Subjects interrupted their prolonged sit for the final four minutes of each hour and performed five 4-second sprints separated by 45 seconds of rest, leading to a total of 20 seconds of exercise per hour and 160 seconds of total time exercising in the day.
Given that each set of five sprints required approximately five minutes to be completed (due to the 45 seconds of rest between bouts) and that eight sets were completed, the total daily time required for exercise was 40 min.
The morning after the interventions, postprandial plasma lipids and fat oxidation were measured over a 6-hour period. The sprint protocol displayed a 31% decrease in plasma triglyceride and a 43% increase in whole body fat oxidation compared to the sitting-only protocol. These data indicate that very short, hourly bouts of maximal power sprints interrupting prolonged sitting can significantly lower the next day’s postprandial plasma triglyceride response and increase fat oxidation.
This is definitely excellent news, both for those who wish to improve their overall health and those who wish to lose body fat. And all this can be accomplished with only 160 seconds of non-fatiguing exercise per day, hence the title of this article “160 Seconds a Day Keeps the Doctor Away!”
But how can we apply the lessons learned from this paper to real life?
I don’t think many of us have a cyclo-ergometer next to our working desk and most likely we would be forcibly dragged to the nearest psychiatric hospital if we were found performing sprints every hour across the corridors of our office building. But we do have a discreet and not bulky fully equipped gym in our arsenal…the kettlebell!
How about if brief sets of very powerful swings became our sprints? In addition to the benefits I listed above we would enjoy all those provided by kettlebell swings, that space from gains in strength and power to improved posture and ability to move well.
StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor Mark Reifkind warned, “Don’t live in your sports posture.” And guess what, if you spend most of your day sitting in front of a desk, then sitting is the main sport you practice for great part of the day. So, you need to clear that desk-sitting posture, which means that you need to extend your hips and knees, straighten your upper back and neck, and strongly engage your glutes, abs, and upper back muscles. All this makes it look like the swing is a perfect fit, doesn’t it?
The 160 Seconds Protocol
Three powerful swings require about four seconds to complete. So, what about committing to the following practice throughout your day?
For 8 hours, on top of every hour, do the following:
- 3 powerful one-arm swings (alternate side from set to set)
- Rest for 45” in which you shake off the tension through fast & loose drills
- Repeat for a total of 4 sets
That’s it! Simple as it gets! A degree in engineering is definitely not a prerequisite for this plan.
Select Your Kettlebell
I suggest that you run the following one-arm swing test prescribed by Pavel in his book The Quick and the Dead:
Find the kettlebell that you can “sprint” with for 20-30 seconds.
Every rep must comply with the SFG standards. Make sure not to lose the float or the glute contraction on the top of each rep. Use chalk generously to make sure grip is not the limiting factor.
The clock starts when the kettlebell leaves the ground. It stops at 30 seconds. The time it takes the kettlebell to swing back and then to the ground after the last rep does not count towards the 30 seconds total—think of it as sprinter’s movement past the finish line.
Count only perfect and explosive reps. Instruct your training partner to stop the clock and the test earlier than 30 seconds if technique or power are compromised. If the timer had to be stopped before 30 seconds, record the time it was stopped for comparison with future tests’ results.
If you have been unable to swing the given kettlebell explosively for at least 20 seconds, it is too heavy to use on this program. Rest and repeat the test with a lighter kettlebell.
If, on the other hand, you have completed 30 seconds with high power and room to spare, rest and repeat the test with a heavier kettlebell. Ten minutes of rest is required between all long sprint tests, regardless of swing type or kettlebell weight.
Retest your swing once every four to six weeks […]
How to Progress
You may simply stick to the protocol above, run the test outlined above every 4-6 weeks and adjust the kettlebell size according to the results. Or you may gradually work up to sets of 5 swings and eventually progressively extend your practice for up to 10 hours (which leads to two more rounds of practice) before running the test once again.
How This Affects Your Regular Training
What I have outlined above is not to be considered a training plan, but rather a practice that you run throughout the day every day. It will leave you neither fatigued nor sore, but you will rather feel “recharged” after each session. It is very similar to Pavel’s “Grease the Groove” for strength, only it’s based on power and it’s organized in specific sets, reps, rest intervals, and frequency of the practices throughout the day.
So, whatever you are doing as far as for your training plan during the week, simply keep doing it as is.
I started following this simple practice a couple of weeks ago together with some friends who have a sedentary occupation. Neither one of us have changed the diet, but we have all experienced some fat loss and our six packs are finally starting to re-emerge again. But the greatest benefits we are experiencing are improved mental focus and overall higher energy levels throughout the day.
It sounds like another “WTH?! effect”, but it makes sense. High-power bouts stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, responsible of the so-called “fight-or-flight response” which leads to the release of adrenaline and especially noradrenaline, which in addition to being a mobilizing hormone, wakes you up better than a black coffee with a double shot of espresso. And all this happens without feeling fatigued or sore after the bouts and, most likely, without even breaking a sweat (unless you practice in a place with very high temperature and levels of humidity, in which case you would sweat even if you stayed seated all day).
A small amount of work done at the right intensity for the right duration will result in numerous health benefits including lower triglyceride levels, accelerated fat metabolism, improved posture and even your energy level throughout the day. But don’t just trust the science I’ve detailed for you. Try it yourself and see, after all it’s only 160 seconds a day!
- Owen N, Healy GN, Matthews CE, Dunstan DW. Too much sitting: the population-health science of sedentary behavior. Exercise and sport sciences reviews. 2010;38(3):105.
- Ekelund U, Steene-Johannessen J, Brown WJ et al. Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonized meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. Lancet. 2016;388(10051):1302-10.
- Patel AV, Bernstein L, Deka A et al. Leisure time spent sitting in relation to total mortality in a prospective cohort of US adults. Am J Epidemiol. 2010;172(4):419-29.
- Biswas A, Oh PI, Faulkner GE et al. Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2015;162(2):123-32.
- Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2011;43(7):1334-59.
- Piercy KL, Troiano RP, Ballard RM et al. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Physical Activity Guidelines for AmericansPhysical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA. 2018;320(19):2020-8.
- Kim IY, Park S, Chou TH, Trombold JR, Coyle EF. Prolonged sitting negatively affects the postprandial plasma triglyceride-lowering effect of acute exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2016;311(5):E891-E8.
- Akins JD, Crawford CK, Burton HM, Wolfe AS, Vardarli E, Coyle EF. Inactivity induces resistance to the metabolic benefits following acute exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2019;126(4):1088-94.
- Homer AR, Fenemor SP, Perry TL et al. Regular activity breaks combined with physical activity improve postprandial plasma triglyceride, nonesterified fatty acid, and insulin responses in healthy, normal weight adults: A randomized crossover trial. J Clin Lipidol. 2017;11(5):1268-79 e1.
- Anthony S. Wolfe, Heath M. Burton, Emre Vardarli, and Edward F. Coyle. Hourly 4-s Sprints Prevent Impairment of Postprandial Fat Metabolism from Inactivity. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, University of Texas at Austin, Austin TX. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: April 17, 2020 – Volume Publish Ahead of Print.