A new study found that quick bursts of exercise, even as short as 12 minutes, can greatly improve metabolic health. Researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) discovered that short workouts cause changes in the body’s metabolite levels. These markers indicate a person’s cardiovascular, cardiometabolic, and long-term health. The paper published in Circulation explains that just 12 minutes of intense cardio can impact more than 80% of circulating metabolites.

The paper went on to describe that this type of exercise can open pathways that boost a number of health markers. Their research highlights potential mechanisms that could help health experts more thoroughly understand how bursts of exercise impact metabolism.

“Much is known about the effects of exercise on cardiac, vascular and inflammatory systems of the body, but our study provides a comprehensive look at the metabolic impact of exercise by linking specific metabolic pathways to exercise response variables and long-term health outcomes,” says investigator Gregory Lewis, MD, lead study author and section head of Heart Failure at MGH. “What was striking to us was the effects a brief bout of exercise can have on the circulating levels of metabolites that govern such key bodily functions as insulin resistance, oxidative stress, vascular reactivity, inflammation, and longevity.”

Key findings from the study

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The MGH study gathered data from the Framingham Heart Study to measure circulating metabolites in 411 middle-aged men and women. The researchers recorded levels of 588 of these metabolites both before and right after 12 minutes of intense exercise. Astonishingly, the team found that positive shifts occurred in many metabolites that had previously indicated cardiometabolic disease at resting levels.

For instance, glutamate, a major metabolite associated with heart disease, diabetes, and a shorter lifespan, dropped 29%. Also, DMGV, a metabolite that increases the risk of diabetes and liver disease, decreased by 18%. Furthermore, researchers found that other factors besides exercise may impact a person’s metabolic health. This includes a person’s gender and body mass index, with obesity potentially inhibiting some benefits of exercise.

“Intriguingly, our study found that different metabolites tracked with different physiologic responses to exercise, and might therefore provide unique signatures in the bloodstream that reveal if a person is physically fit, much the way current blood tests determine how well the kidney and liver are functioning,” notes co-first author Matthew Nayor, MD, MPH, with the Heart Failure and Transplantation Section in the Division of Cardiology at MGH. “Lower levels of DMGV, for example, could signify higher levels of fitness.”

Analyzing a person’s metabolic responses may help predict lifespan

The Framingham Heart Study began in 1948 and spans three generations of participants. The MGH study applied the same signatures used in the current study group to stored blood from prior generations of volunteers. When studying how exercise affected their metabolic health in the long-term, researchers could accurately predict a person’s future health and longevity.

“We’re starting to better understand the molecular underpinnings of how exercise affects the body and use that knowledge to understand the metabolic architecture around exercise response patterns,” says co-first author Ravi Shah, MD, with the Heart Failure and Transplantation Section in the Division of Cardiology at MGH. “This approach has the potential to target people who have high blood pressure or many other metabolic risk factors in response to exercise, and set them on a healthier trajectory early in their lives.”

Other ways to improve your metabolic health

  • Get adequate sleep.

When you don’t sleep deeply or long enough, your body’s hormone levels become imbalanced. A study from Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin found that adults sleeping 5 hours or less had elevated ghrelin levels. This hormone helps regulate your appetite, so having more of it means you will feel hungry more often. Also, lack of sleep causes the hormone leptin, which suppresses appetite, to decrease.

Make sure you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night and keep a regular sleep schedule. Turn off technology a few hours before bed, or use blue-light-blocking glasses to help regulate your melatonin levels. Also, keep your room cool enough so that you can sleep comfortably and soundly.

  • Exercise regularly.

Many people today don’t get enough vigorous exercise to offset their increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Some experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of intense aerobic exercise each week, in addition to resistance training. We need both cardio and resistance exercise to keep our organs and muscles healthy. However, as the above study shows, you can get away with shorter workouts as long as you keep the intensity up.

  • Eat throughout the day.

We need a steady supply of nutrients to keep our brains and bodies moving! In our busy lives, it can seem difficult to eat enough quality food. However, if you plan ahead and prep meals during the weekend, you can make eating healthy a lot easier. Try to eat a few nutrient-dense snacks such as nuts, seeds or protein shakes during the day. In addition, include plenty of fruits and veggies, lean proteins, and healthy fats in your meals.

  • Drink plenty of water.

Chronic dehydration continues to rise as more people turn to caffeine-filled or sugary beverages instead. Not only does water stave off hunger, but it helps every part of our bodies function properly. If you feel thirsty, this means you have already gotten dehydrated. Keep a glass or stainless steel bottle with you at work or school to ensure you get enough water.

  • Eat more calcium.

One study found that calcium from low-fat dairy sources helped boost metabolic health in participants. In other words, calcium from these foods can help reduce body fat, allowing your body to function more optimally.

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Final thoughts on a study showing how short workouts can increase metabolism

This study shows that we don’t need to spend hours slaving away in the gym to get healthy. Even 12 minutes of vigorous exercise can greatly improve metabolic health and reduce the risk of disease. In fact, these short bursts of exercise can impact about 80% of circulating metabolites! In addition to working out, getting enough sleep, drinking plenty of water, and eating nutrient-dense foods can improve metabolic health.