Remember those 90’s infomercials about 8 minute abs? Of course you do. I recall how they offered that holy grail of exercise programs: stellar results with minimal effort. What a dream!
Like many fitness fads (I’m looking at you, ThighMaster), the product faded while the question remained. How can I get better fitness results in less time? In all these decades of exercise programs and gimmicks, did science ever find a way to get fit fast?
When it comes to cardio exercise, the answer is, surprisingly, “yeah.”
HIIT Me with Your Best Shot
Enter High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). More of a training philosophy than a specific program, HIIT manages to pay off on that “less is more” promise of exercise trends. By interspersing short bursts of all-out effort (20-30 seconds) with 4 minute rest paces, you begin to reap many benefits of traditional endurance training. Only got 30 minutes for cardio? HIIT might be your answer.
Just like endurance training, exercise researchers find that HIIT provides gains in metabolism and artery function. Physiologist Martin Gibala (bio) states that 4-6 cycles of all-out effort (the HI in HIIT) boosts blood delivery to your muscles and heart, just like traditional cardio. As for weight loss, researcher Jason Talanian found that HIIT’s increased fat burn continues even during low-intensity exercise (Source). Not bad for 7 minutes of intense cardio every week (3 days of HIIT cardio weekly for 30 minutes). By contrast, the same 30 minutes of steady-state cardio will only burn calories while you’re exercising.
My HIIT Experience
I’ve done cardio regularly since I started my health journey in 2011. I’ve done jogging, elliptical, rowing, and cycling. HIIT definitely has its benefits, but I’ll tell you this: it’s hard.
Those little 20-30 second bursts of intense effort shock your heart into racing, which feels different when compared to regular cardio’s elevated heart rate. My HIIT sessions on the elliptical spike my heart rate about 30 bpm. Ever had a car accident or seen a bear up close? That’s what HIIT feels like. Then again, I like the benefits. It strengthens my heart and endurance by pushing my limits for wee bits of time. I’m also a big fan of burning calories after a workout. Read the Baby Steps here and think it over.
A word of caution: HIIT is literally not for the faint of heart. If you have heart or breathing conditions, check with your physician first about healthy aerobic exercise options.
If you want to try HIIT for yourself, start off at 20 minutes of cardio: that’s 4 spikes of 20 seconds, followed by 4 minute cooldown periods. I recommend using the elliptical because you can spike your speed without waiting for a treadmill to speed up. Running outside works, too.
Like I said, HIIT isn’t the most comfortable exercise approach. Scratch that: it straight-up hurts. It’s effective conditioning, though and pairs well with a weight training regimen. Feeling brave? Give HIIT a try on your next cardio day and let me know what you think about it. I’ll be gasping for air right along with you.