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Trainers Share Their Top Tips for Getting Fit in Just 20 Minutes a Day

By Gabrielle Kassel
December 30, 2021

Making a New Year’s resolution may feel old-fashioned, but the truth is, it can be a great motivator to get in better shape. In fact, improving fitness is the most popular resolution in the USA, and for good reason — exercise is critical for our health, after all. 

Unfortunately, many people often set themselves up for failure by aiming too big. (“I’m going to work out for an hour every single day!” “I’ll run a marathon by the end of the month!” “I’m going to lose 100 pounds in the next twenty minutes!”) That’s why fitness trainers recommend setting goals you can actually keep. For example: work out for just 20 minutes a day. 

Here, two certified fitness trainers explain why 20 minutes a day is sufficient for helping you reach your health and fitness goals, and share six tips for getting the most out of your short-but-sweet sweat session.  

Maintaining consistency is key

Certified personal trainer and nutritionist Christine VanDoren CPT, CN, says that the number one excuse that keeps people out of the gym and away from their fitness goals is lack of time. Well, tough love alert: You do have time. If you have time to watch an episode of Ted Lasso, put on a face mask, or doom-scroll Instagram, then you have time for a quick workout. 

“20 minutes of movement a day really is enough to help you get fit and stay fit,” says Esther Avant, ACE-certified personal trainer and certified nutrition coach at Esther Avant Wellness Coaching.

And regular 20-minute workouts actually have a benefit that occasional hour-long workouts don’t: They encourage consistency. “When you build a daily habit around your goals, they eventually become ingrained in who you are, which makes them more effortless,” says VanDoren.

Curious how long it will take to achieve results from working out just 20 minutes a day? Here’s the truth: not long at all. “If you are exercising 15-30 minutes a day, you will start to feel the results after a couple of weeks, and see the results after three to four weeks,” according to Avant. 

To track your progress, Avant suggests keeping a fitness journal where you track non-scale-related victories. “Keeping tabs of things like improved energy, a pair of pants fitting better, and lower stress is a great way to ensure you don’t miss any of the early, subtle changes,” she says. 

Exactly how to get fit in 20 minutes a day 

1. Start your workout with a plan 

Whether your 20 minutes take place in the gym or your living room, VanDoren recommends walking into your workout with a plan. 

“Plan out your 20-minute workouts ahead of time to ensure that you will be making the most of your time,” she says.  Having a pre-planned routine will also keep you focused on the task at hand, on days when work emails are calling. 

2. Be flexible 

Yes, you want to workout 20 minutes a day. No, it doesn’t need to be at the same time every single day. 

“A lot of people pigeonhole themselves into being a ‘morning person’ or a ‘night owl,’ and when their ideal workout schedule doesn’t align with the time they have available, they just skip it altogether,” says Avant. Guilty as charged. 

Try to remember that there is no “perfect” time of day to exercise. “Believing this will give you the freedom to get it done whenever it works for your schedule,” she says.

3. Do compound lifts 

Ultimately, the type of movement you do each day will vary based on your fitness goals, access to equipment, current fitness level, and more. But as a general recommendation, the CDC suggests that you incorporate two to three days of strength training and cardiovascular training per week. 

On the days you lift, VanDoren suggests sticking to compound movements. For instance: The squat clean, thruster, deadlift, front squat, and push press. “Compound movements are movements that target multiple muscle groups at once,” she explains. “So, if you only have 20 minutes in the weight room, utilizing compound movements is the best way to make the most of your time.” And for the record, you don’t need a gym membership to make this happen. Compound movements can be done with any kind of equipment, including dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, weight plates, or odd household objects like a chair. 

During the time block, you might spend 6 to 8 minutes warming up to a heavy working weight. Then, doing 5 sets of 5 reps with 2 minutes of rest in between, followed by a cool-down. Or, you could program a superset that targets the same muscle groups. “You could pair a heavy bench press with 15 push-ups, for example, going right from press to push-up,” says VanDoren. “These two exercises work the same muscle groups, so you will really feel the burn.

4. Stick to HIIT 

On your cardio days, VanDoren says high intensity interval training is the way to go. 

“HIIT workouts are one of the best ways to burn calories in a short amount of time,” she explains. “They also help you increase your cardiovascular and muscular endurance, both of which are factors that will improve your performance with weight lifting and general cardio activities.” Win-win!

The easiest way to find a 20-minute HIIT workout? Search YouTube. “There are tons of HIIT workout routines on Youtube you can follow along with,” she says. But you could also create your own by picking a movement like burpees or mountain climbers and going full-send for 20 seconds, resting 10 seconds, and repeating for 8 rounds. (This is known as Tabata training.) 

5. Start tracking your steps

Hate to break it to you, but what you do during the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day is going to impact how quickly you reach your fitness goals, too. 

“You want to incorporate movement into the rest of your day, too,” says VanDoren. “Walking is one of the best ways to do that because it’s easy, free, and low-impact,” she says, making it accessible for people of all fitness levels, ages, and injury histories. 

“Walking every day can deliver benefits such as longevity, weight loss, stronger bones, and improved moods,” she says — so that’s a win all around. She recommends aiming for 5,000 steps per day to start. Then, increase your goal to 10,000 steps (or more!) per day over time. 

To be clear: These steps don’t have to be achieved on a multi-mile walking loop. They can be accumulated over the course of the day by parking further away when you go to the grocery store, walking to the mailbox, or taking your dog a little further down the block to pee. 

6. Noodle on your nutrition 

“Although many of us have physical goals and exercise is an important piece of that, results will really boil down to nutrition,” says Avant. 

Of course, the benefits to exercise go beyond body recomposition and weight loss (including reduced risk of disease, boosted brain health, and stronger bones). But if you’re not eating for your goals, she says, you’re unlikely to see the results you’re looking for… even if you’re doing everything right in the gym. “You won’t be able to build muscle, for example, if you’re consistently under-eating,” she says. “And you won’t be able to lose weight if you’re overeating.” 

Your move: Become curious about what you eat. “Start by keeping a food journal to see what a week of normal eating looks like for you,” she says. MyFitnessPal and MyPlate are apps that allow you to do this digitally. 

“Next, prioritize your biggest areas of opportunity for improvement from there,” she says. “For most people this will be eating the right number of calories, the right amount of protein, eating more vegetables, or consuming fewer highly processed foods,” she says. And if you have cash to spare, you might hire a nutritionist who can devise a nutrition plan specific to you and your health and fitness goals.

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