For the time-crunched and gym-shy, welcome news: there is no need to spend hours exercising if you want to get in shape - a workout lasting little longer than a pop song will do nicely. According to many in the fitness industry, all you need to get rid of your love handles is four minutes a day, manageable even by the most slothful.
"Short, intense workouts are definitely the way forward," says personal trainer Dax Moy, who runs fitness studios in London. "There can be nobody who can't find four or five minutes in their day to exercise for their health." Moy has achieved great success since introducing short, sharp training to his clients. Called Tabata training (after the physiologist at the National Institute of Fitness and Sport in Tokyo who "discovered" it), it is a daily, gut-busting express workout that leads to improved strength, aerobic conditioning and a more toned appearance. "With Tabata, you work extremely hard, at around 85% of your maximum aerobic capacity; it leaves you puffing and sweating, but for just four minutes," he explains. "The type of activity is not as important as the intensity, but I get clients to use weights, lift kettlebells, perform squats and other tough moves for 40 seconds followed by a 20-second rest."
The workout may be short, but do not expect an easy ride. "Tabata-style training can be quite brutal," Moy says. "You are working so hard that after four minutes you could physically do no more." Beginners, he says, need a certain level of conditioning before they can even attempt it. But once you embark on the programme, results come fast. "On just four minutes a day you will see changes to body shape and strength, as long as you do it regularly and consistently - that is the key." Earlier this year, the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a consumer watchdog, predicted that what it calls "abbreviated fitness programmes" such as Tabata would capture the imagination of gym members to become the fitness hit of 2006. And it does seem that an increasing number of people are realising that more effort in less time can have pleasing results on the waistline.
Research confirms that this is no fad. A couple of years ago, sport scientists at the University of Glamorgan in South Wales found that people could cut the duration of their gym sessions by two-thirds and achieve the same results as those who slogged for longer. Regular exercisers were split into two groups and told to follow an upper-body weight-training programme. All worked out three days a week; one group performed one set of eight repetitions, while the others did three times as much. After two months, both groups displayed significant improvements in muscular strength and corresponding decreases in body fat.
"Our results showed that a shorter workout can achieve exactly the same results as spending hours at the gym," says Julien Baker, who conducted the research. "Although our research focused on strength training, these results may also be true for other types of exercise. If, for instance, you run faster for a shorter time, it can be more beneficial than a long, slow plod." Indeed, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines warn gym-goers against clocking up "dead miles" by pedalling, rowing or running at a snail's pace. Thirty minutes of high- intensity exercise is as good as an hour at a workload of 60%, says the ACSM. "You have two options if you want to get aerobically fitter," advises Baker. "Either increase the duration considerably, or raise the intensity. If you don't have lots of spare time, a shorter session can be more appealing."
Matt Roberts, Britain's best-known personal trainer, says that "moderate, long-duration activity is not the best way to go" and that most people could halve their workouts by following schedules such as the 20-minute workout in his peripheral heart training programme. In America, Ken Hutchins, personal trainer to Hollywood stars including Brad Pitt, advocates weight-training sessions of no longer than 20 minutes. Lifting heavier weights more slowly means "the muscles gradually get fatigued to the point where they can no longer lift", he says. "Within two to three minutes of exercising a muscle this slowly, it reaches a threshold. The body then gets a signal to make that muscle grow stronger." Jorge Cruise, author of Eight Minutes in the Morning, suggests that a mini-weights session once a week is enough to tone up flabby body parts.
Already, many gym chains here offer workouts that slot conveniently into the daily timetables of the time-starved. Cannons, LA Fitness, Holmes Place and Esporta all offer express, 20- or 30-minute classes on their timetable for activities ranging from traditional aerobics to Pilates. "The fitness industry has to face the fact that most people are extremely time-poor," says Moy. "Short workouts are psychologically appealing, but they also have a good physical effect." He suggests incorporating an element of progression into even the most condensed exercise schedule. "A lot of my clients now do three four-minute sessions a day," he says. "The more you do, the fitter you will get, but don't expect miracles. Four minutes is still four minutes and you won't run a marathon off that".