The Remarkable Mental Health Advantages of Brief Exercise Sessions

Exercise as a whole is known to improve mental health. However, science reveals certain types of short-term exercises can deliver exceptional benefits relative to their duration.- By Malibu Kothari

It’s a modern Catch-22 that afflicts millions of Canadians. Exercise has a well-known, positive impact on mental health, which an estimated 6.7 million Canadians are trying to manage. Yet trying to squeeze exercise sessions into an already packed schedule can increase feelings of pressure, stress, and anxiety, exacerbating mental health woes. This is particularly true for Canadians who may be struggling with executive function or depression and who are unable to picture themselves making it through a “typical” hour-long gym class or aerobics session. Fortunately, modern research indicates that there’s an alternative option to “typical” gym adventures. Short bursts of exercise, and especially high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions, offer meaningful mental health improvements in a fraction of the time needed on more traditional wellness programs. This research should be of interest to anyone who has struggled to make time to exercise, and to Canadian firms looking to quickly add wellness opportunities for their staff.

What do short burst Exercises really have to offer?

When viewed through the lens of mental health, the goal of exercise is to reduce cortisol (stress) levels and trigger the release of endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood enhancers. This natural rebalancing – less cortisol and more endorphins – allows exercise to significantly reduce feelings of stress and anxiety and lessen the severity of depressive symptoms, even among those who are chronically stressed or struggling with long-term depression. According to Jenna Gillen, an exercise physiologist at the University of Toronto, the benefits can accrue in a shockingly short amount of time. In a study she did with colleagues in 2016, participants were able to experience noticeable benefits from as little as one minute of intense exercise done three times a week. German researchers have demonstrated notable benefits from sessions that range from two to five minutes and added up to no more than 14 minutes of working out, twice a week (and their cohort was made up of obese, sedentary office workers, too). Participants in these studies – as well as dozens of others – reported that they were able to lose a bit of weight, boost cardiovascular health, and experienced very little soreness or fatigue from their short sessions. Even better, from a mental health perspective, is that these “mini sessions” were also enough to trigger the cortisol reduction and endorphin surges needed to improve mental wellbeing. Many participants even said their short sessions were fun!

Translating fun sessions into meaningful business outcomes

Improving mental health at the office is a worthy goal in and of itself. However, in today’s economic climate, it is helpful to draw a clear, bright line between fun, short exercise sessions and meaningful business outcomes. This can make it easier for employees to justify the time to themselves, and for firms to justify the investment in on-site gyms, on-site trainers, or at-home fitness support subscriptions to guide HIIT sessions. In meta-analysis published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers found that HIIT programs did better than traditional or low-intensity exercise interventions at reducing depressive symptoms. This outcome, in term, led to fewer workplace absences and better on-the-job performance. In a country were “presenteeism” has been a problem, helping workers show up in a better mood and more prepared to do good work directly impacts the bottom line.

Further, writing in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, researchers noted that HIIT programs improved memory, attention, and decision-making skills. This was true across age groups, and particularly among older adults. Imagine a busy sales team or group of technical managers suddenly – after just a few very short workouts – being able to make better decisions, give more focus and attention to their tasks, and remember more from day to day. Plus, in addition to helping with performance issues, it’s likely that the HIIT program would reduce feelings of burnout and by extension, quit rates.

How to incorporate HIIT into Canadian workplaces

Bringing HIIT into the workplace is possible, even if part or all of the team works remotely. According to Benefits Canada, firms have the option to design spaces on site suitable for HIIT sessions, or companies can sponsor wellness subscriptions for at-home employees to give the same kind of guided access even when not everyone is co-located.

A special note on inclusiveness here… since HIIT is based on creating a highly intense metabolic impact in the individual, instead of a certain number of laps or reps, it’s a program that can be modified for any level of physical fitness or ability. Indeed, HIIT is often recommended to people who are older, overweight, or struggling with physical limitations that make traditional exercise programs a problem for them. It can also be used in a rehabilitative environment, allowing the maximum number of people interested to opt into participating.

However, since HIIT programs are different from traditional long-duration or “low impact” workouts, researchers note that the hardest part is often the initial set up. For this reason, it’s useful to provide extra support and accountability for workplace cohorts when HIIT is being introduced. So, a company might choose to bring in a special in-person trainer for a few months before allowing workers to proceed on their own, or offer at home workers the opportunity to get one-on-one telehealth or fitness coaching when starting their HIIT journey. This can also help workers who may be feeling anxious about HIIT or struggling with personal motivation to make the commitment to improving their wellness and mental health.

Closing thoughts – its quality, not quantity!

Pressed for time, many Canadians skip exercising. However, thanks to what science has discovered about HIIT programs, it is now possible to capture the mental health benefits of exercise without a major time commitment. By choosing a HIIT approach, company wellness programs and individuals alike can have the chance to experience life with less stress, better mental performance, and more of those “feel good” endorphins.