Experimenting with the “Four Second Workout”

After writing my post a couple of weeks ago about how much I miss incidental movement since the lockdown started, I started trying to move a little more — a quick walk around the block between zoom calls, spending 15 minutes sweeping my terrace in the middle of the day, putting away laundry in a very inefficient manner (think, three facecloths at a time). And lo and behold, I felt better, just a bit more at ease.

I also started paying more attention to how much I’m sitting, and how that was making me feel. I’m privileged enough to have an ergonomically functional workspace because my home office is my main workplace all the time. But even with a decent place to sit and some integration of deliberate incidental movement, as the lockdown has worn on, I’m still finding myself mushy between the ears and super sleepy by the middle of the afternoon.

Then last weekend the New York Times Well section offered a very alluring idea — the Four Second Workout!

Unlike the six minute workout that Catherine wrote about recently, the “four second workout” isn’t about efficient and doable ways to integrate focused fitness into your life — it’s about adding short intense bursts of movement throughout the day to counter the nasty effects of sitting too much.

I realized, reading this article, that despite hearing “sitting is the new smoking” for a few years now, I have only the vaguest notion what those nasty effects are. This article reiterated what I knew — that prolonged sitting leads to increased risks for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disruptions — but it also explained why. Many hours of sitting can “contribute to a later rise in the bloodstream of fatty acids, known as triglycerides, probably in part because muscles at rest produce less than contracting muscles do of a substance that breaks up triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides, in turn, are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and other metabolic problems.”

Basically, this study began with earlier findings that long periods of sitting create more triglycerides and insulin resistance in the blood in otherwise healthy young people. Other studies found that sitting is a problem even if you break up the sitting with an intense hourlong run workout during the day. In other words, in a day where you go for a run in the middle of the day but are otherwise just sitting, that run isn’t having the much of an effect on your heart and metabolism — the sitting counteracts the run.

This new study explored whether tiny, frequent workouts would break up the effects of the sitting. They had volunteers add short, intense workouts to their long days of sitting. Every hour, they got on a heavy flywheel bike, did 4 seconds of sprints, followed by 45 seconds of rest, repeated five times in total. (So a total of 20 seconds of sprinting over about 4.5 minutes). They did this 8 times over a work day, for a total of about 160 seconds of intense activity. The next day — magically — this lowered their triglyceride levels by 30%.

The advice? “When you find yourself sitting for most of the day, try to rise frequently and move, preferably intensely, as often during the day as possible and for as many seconds as you can manage.

Now, I don’t have a flywheel bike in my home office, and I don’t always have 5 minutes between calls. But I decided to try a version of this, to do the very scientific experiment of “seeing how it made me feel.” I grabbed the trusty skipping rope I fortuitously bought shortly before the pandemic, and set my pomodoro timer for every 30 minutes. (This is a method I already use to manage my productivity). Here are my fieldnotes.

7:30 – 830: I do my usual virtual HIIT workout. It’s moderately intense with lots of legwork. I decide this means I can start skipping around 10.

10:00: I do a set of 100 reps, in about 47 seconds. 50 fast skips is easy, it turns out, but it starts to get harder around 70. Process improvement: add shoes. (Ouch). And a bra.

11 am: I don’t really have time to skip between calls, but I let myself be a minute late. I trip up a couple of times and whack my toes but keep going. I arrive on the zoom still breathing hard, shedding my wrap. At this point in the pandemic, I have stopped even trying to look “professional” on calls. But my heart rate is sure up.

Noon: Before I start making lunch, I do a set. This one feels efficient, but I’m getting hot.

1240: I throw in a few random skips while I’m waiting for my tomatoes to finish roasting. I feel virtuous.

1:30 pm: Lunch is still heavy in my tummy. I decide 70 reps is enough this time. My shoe comes untied and I just let the laces flop.

2:00 pm: I’m bargaining — wouldn’t 50 be enough? I go for 100, but I whack my toes a lot, and it’s more like 28 – 37 – 62 – 68 – 75 – 1 2 3 4 up to 25. I sure feel awake.

3 pm: I add music, Icona Pop’s I Love It. I do 100 reps in 45 seconds without stumbling, and then lurch back to my desk, shooing the little cat off my keyboard. She settles back down with her butt on my arm.

3:30ish: Lizzo. The little cat stares at me. This is really feeling like work. Maybe 100 reps isn’t necessary — it takes a full minute to slow down my heartrate. But I do them and I’m not sleepy!

415ish: (forgot to set the timer). Kelly Clarkson. I whack my foot at 37 and 98 but otherwise it’s unremarkable. Does doing this 10 times in a day count as an actual workout, I’m beginning to wonder?

500 pm: I wonder how much I’m annoying my downstairs neighbour. Also, is it possible this skipping rope is too short? I hit my toes a lot.

530: I do a final skip to cap off the day at my desk, with Shakira. I slow down a little and indulge in a bit of side to side. My word but that is a lot of skipping.


By the end of the day, I had skipped for around 500 seconds (about 8 minutes), over 10 episodes. How did I feel at the end of the day? Much more invigorated than I have any day since the lockdown started! My brain was still clear at the end of the day and I felt “awake.” I also found that this integrated well with my existing pomodoro “work hard for 30 minutes, take a quick break and stand up” approach. I was also a little sore, but I didn’t know if that was from all the squats and wall sits from my morning workout or from the skipping.

The next morning, I kind of wanted to measure my triglycerides, but since I couldn’t’t (and since I didn’t really know what triglycerides were 48 hours ago), I did a body scan instead. I slept better than the night before (coincidence?), felt reasonably rested and decided I wanted to go for a run outside rather than working out with my virtual group. After my run, I found myself less inclined to eat a bagel and peanut butter than usual, and went for a smoothie instead.

The next day, I had very little buffer between calls, but I threw in a few random skipping episodes during the day, and I think I’ll keep doing that. It can’t hurt. Unless you’re not wearing shoes. Or a bra.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is tired of sitting and screens in Toronto. Here she actually put on lipstick and a nice outfit for her afternoon zooms, but skipped between them anyway.

2 thoughts on “Experimenting with the “Four Second Workout”

  1. Good idea about skipping. I need a rope! For now I just ran up and down my stairs, instead of walking, to grab a pen and something I was printing. I’ve been so missing incidental movement!

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