It doesn’t take much to build strength, a new study has found. All you need is the will to move for a few minutes a day.

If the idea of having to survive an intense gym class or make it through a hard 5k fills you with dread, listen up: it’s not how intense your exercise is that matters. New research has confirmed it’s the frequency and not the intensity that matters when it comes to health.

Scientists have found that you’re better off doing a little bit of daily activity if you want to get stronger and healthier, rather than doing a huge load of exercise a few times a week. 

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Scientists from Edith Cowan University (ECU), in collaboration with Niigata and Nishi Kyushu Universities in Japan asked three groups of participants to take part in a four-week training study. Each group was asked to perform the lowering part of a bicep-curl, with changes in muscle strength and thickness measured and compared.

Two groups performed 30 reps per week, with one group doing six a day for five days a week (6×5), while the other crammed all 30 into a single day (30×1). The other group performed six, one day a week (6×1).

After four weeks, those who did 30 contractions in a single day didn’t show any increase in muscle strength, although muscle thickness had increased by 5.8%. The group that did six contractions in a week (6×1) didn’t show any changes in thickness or strength. But the participants who did six contractions five days a week (6×5) saw a 10% increase in muscle strength and a similar increase in thickness to the 30×1 group.

This led researchers to conclude that it’s frequency and not volume that makes the most difference – and that you really don’t have to do much at all to reap the rewards. 

Why less, more frequently is better than long, heavy sessions

“People think they have to do a lengthy session of resistance training in the gym, but that’s not the case,” says Ken Nosaka, ECU’s professor of exercise and sports science. “Just lowering a heavy dumbbell slowly once or six times a day is enough.”

While this study got people to lift the heaviest weight they could, Professor Nosaka says that ongoing research has found similar results can be achieved without exerting your maximum effort.

It’s also worth saying that you can reap similar benefits using other exercises and targeting other muscles.

Rest is one of the most important factors when it comes to muscle growth

One key factor in this study was the amount of rest participants had access to. The 6×5 group had two days off a week, during which muscle adaptions could occur, says Professor Nosaka. “If someone was able to somehow train 24 hours a day, there would be actually no improvement at all.

“Muscles need rest to improve their strength and their muscle mass, but muscles appear to like to be stimulated more frequently.”

Taking a few total rest days a week is key to building strength

How frequently should we exercise?

The study concludes that exercising every day is better than going hard a few times a week. Rather than spending hours at the gym, you’re better off setting aside 15 minutes a day to dance, walk, lift and/or lunge.

“If you’re just going to the gym once a week, it’s not as effective as doing a bit of exercise every day at home,” Professor Nosaka says.

“This research, together with our previous study, suggests the importance of accumulating a small amount of exercise a week, rather than just spending hours exercising once a week.

“We need to know that every muscle contraction counts, and it’s how regularly you perform them that counts.”

Images: Getty

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