Jonathan Su, DPT, a physical therapist, yoga therapist, and former U.S. Army officer based in the San Francisco Bay area. Dr. Su is author of 6-Minute Fitness at 60+ and 6-Minute Core Strength. SixMinuteFitness.com
You can squeeze a surprising amount of productivity into just six minutes. You can make and enjoy the first few sips of a cup of coffee…complete a guided meditation…unsubscribe from annoying e-newsletters…even declutter your car.
Guess what else you can accomplish in six minutes twice a day? You can counter the effects of age-related muscle loss while also improving heart health and aerobic endurance…easing chronic pain…boosting mood…protecting cognition…regulating blood sugar levels…and reducing your risk of falling. So says former US Army officer Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, C-IAYT, now a physical therapist and yoga therapist.
When you exercise strategically, targeting key muscle groups with movements that alternate between high- and low-intensity, you can generate impressive strength and balance results in a fraction of the time. The magic lies in interspersing shorter workouts with quick bouts of higher-intensity exercise. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) involves pushing yourself harder than you’re used to for small bursts of time (say, 30 seconds), then catching your breath while you move through a minute or so of lower-intensity exercise before repeating the sequence.
Several shorter (less than 10 minutes) bouts of higher-intensity exercise spread throughout the day are just as effective as a single daily 30-minute session. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that you can maintain a higher intensity during each shorter session.
Keep in mind: High intensity doesn’t mean high impact. In fact, lower-impact moves spare joints from unnecessary stress. High intensity simply means that you’re exerting more effort than usual. To reap the benefits, you need to challenge yourself more than you’re used to—to push until you feel tired…then push just a little bit more. Exercise scientists refer to this effect as the overload principle.
The routine on page 12 takes six minutes and should be done twice a day. It targets key muscle groups you need to stay active, mobile and independent—namely, the muscles in the hips and legs. A strong, healthy lower body lets you stand and walk safely and confidently, even on uneven or slippery surfaces. If you do fall, strong hips and legs help guard against major injury. Working the quadriceps (thighs) and glutes (buttocks) will enhance your ability to walk longer and navigate stairs, inclines and uneven surfaces. Strong calves also can prevent or reduce swelling in the feet…discourage the formation of blood clots…help propel your body forward while walking…and let you elevate on your tiptoes. HIIT moves that target leg and hip muscles also boost production of testosterone in men and human growth hormone, both of which preserve muscle but decline with age.
HIIT improves cardiovascular endurance and builds muscle, and it is safe for adults with heart or lung disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. A Mayo Clinic study found that regular HIIT workouts have the power to slow aging at the cellular level in people over age 65.
Below is Dr. Su’s six-minute plan to help you become more fit!
Perform the following routine twice a day, every day for two weeks. After that, you can drop to once a day, five or six days a week. The routine consists of the Big Three—three simple exercises to do at home that work the hips and legs, performed at a pace that taxes muscles in a good way. These moves are designed for individuals who have no difficulty standing but lack the strength or energy needed to walk for at least six minutes at a vigorous pace or navigate stairs easily.
Space your sessions at least three hours apart. Perform 15 repetitions of each exercise without resting before moving onto the next exercise. Each time you complete all three exercises is one round. Your goal is to complete as many rounds as possible in six minutes—aim for four to five rounds. Performing moves continuously qualifies as HIIT. You can rest for 30 seconds after a round if you feel you need it.
A note on safety: Check with your doctor to see if there’s any reason you should avoid this workout. If you have untreated cardiovascular disease or significant balance issues, your health-care provider may want you to go a bit easier.
Move #1: Chair Squat. Muscles worked: Quadriceps and glutes. You’ll need two sturdy chairs for this move—one should be backed up against a wall to keep it from moving. Begin by sitting on the front half of this chair, feet flat on the ground (hip-width apart, feet under knees, knees at a 90-degree angle.) If the seat is too low for the 90-degree angle, place a pillow on the seat and sit on that. Place another sturdy chair directly in front of you with the back of the chair facing you. Use this chair for support if you need it. With your arms crossed over your chest, lean forward at the waist to bring your nose over your toes as you stand up by pushing your legs into the ground.
Lower yourself down to the starting position with control, bending at the waist to bring your nose back over your toes and reaching your hips back toward the seat. Repeat this at a moderate pace 15 times.
Why it works: Older adults with weaker legs tend to use their arms to push themselves out of chairs, sofas or beds. This keeps their legs weak. Crossing your arms ensures that your lower body does the work.
If it’s too difficult at first: Place your hands on your knees to help push yourself up to standing position. This is different than pushing off the chair because your legs still do all of the work.
For an extra challenge: Increase the resistance by wearing a sturdy backpack loaded with heavy items like books or soup cans…or consider purchasing a weighted vest.
Move #2: Heel Lift. Muscles worked: Calves. Using the same two chairs as you did for the Chair Squat, stand in front of the chair that’s backed up against the wall, with your back facing the chair. This chair is for safety, to catch you if you stumble. Place your hands on top of the chairback in front of you for balance.
With your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing forward, lift your heels off the floor. Keep your knees straight, and resist the urge to lean forward. (Bending your knees will take the pressure off your calves, but you want to work your calves.) Hold the elevated position for just one-half second before slowly lowering your heels to the floor. Repeat at a moderate pace 15 times. You can rest your hands lightly on the chairback in front of you for support.
If it’s too difficult to lift your heels all the way up: Lift them as high as you can. This will improve quickly as your calves strengthen.
For an extra challenge: Wear a heavy backpack or a weighted vest…or let go of the chairback.
Move #3: High Knees Marching. Muscles worked: Quads and hip flexors. Using the same two chairs as you did for the Chair Squat and Heel Lift, begin in the same hip-width stance. (Put a few extra inches between you and the front chair so you have room to lift your knees.) With hands lightly balanced on the chairback, lift your left leg so your thigh is parallel to the ground, left knee bent 90 degrees.
Visual cue: From the side, your body should resemble the shape of a chair or the letter “h,” with your standing leg forming the chair leg, your upper leg forming the seat, and your body forming the backrest.
Hold your left leg up for a quick beat before lowering the left foot back down to the ground, then lift the right leg. Continue marching for 15 left-right alterations.
If it’s too difficult to lift your leg all the way up: Lift it as high as you can. You’ll improve quickly as your hip flexors strengthen.
For an extra challenge: Wear ankle weights or challenge your balancing abilities by hovering your hands over the chairback rather than grasping it.
Why hip flexors matter: Positioned on the fronts of the hips, your hip flexors allow you to lift your knees up toward your chest. Strengthening these makes your legs feel lighter and helps you avoid the stereotypical “senior shuffle” (dragging your feet while walking, which increases fall risk).