fitness · training · weight loss

High intensity interval training and weight loss: Yawn!

It’s all over the fitness media this week. For weight loss, you should go for high intensity interval training over other forms of exercise.

According Runners World, “Interval training could help you lose more weight than a continuous moderate-intensity workout, according to a new review and meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Interval training may make your body more efficient at burning fat, the researchers believe.”

But why is weight loss even the question? Why not sports performance or other training goals?

I confess this was my reaction: Yawn.

I shared the story with the other bloggers and Catherine chimed in, “Also, for those who are not actively competing, there’s the issue of what we LIKE to do and what we can sustain over time. I’ve done plenty of HIIT, but these days I’m not up to it mentally. We shall see as the weather improves– hill repeats do have a certain masochistic appeal– but right now steady state is a happy place for me.”

Then Mina, “I don’t even like the phrasing “not up to it” in this context, because it implies a shortcoming or deficit. No activity is sustainable, unless we like it. In fact, I’d Kondo-ize that statement and say that maybe we shouldn’t do activities that don’t spark joy. Recognizing, that we will need to sweat a little and experience some false starts to find what activity that is. Even if our goal is competing, we better be loving the training to get there. Basically, I think we feel best when we are pursuing our personal version of excellence and when that excellence has meaning to us (which likely involves some meaning for others, too).”

What’s your response to this report?

Also, I then ran into an interesting critique of the headline version of the review’s results. Read the whole thing here.

Yoni Freedhoff writes, “Last week saw the publication of a new study in the BJSM entitled (highlighting mine), “Is interval training the magic bullet for fat loss? A systematic review and meta-analysis comparing moderate-intensity continuous training with high-intensity interval training (HIIT)“. Understandably intrigued given a prominent medical journal was suggesting there was a magic bullet for fat loss, I clicked through, and then reading the piece I learned that the amount of fat lost that the BJSM was calling a “magic bullet” was a 1 pound difference, one which the study’s abstract’s conclusion described as, “a 28.5% greater reductions in total absolute fat mass (kg)”. Duly surprised, I then took to Twitter to poke around and found that one of the study’s authors, James Steele, was tweeting out a corrective thread to his own study’s hype – hype which understandably and predictably led to an onslaught of media overreach.”

That post is worth reading. It’s totally not boring.

3 thoughts on “High intensity interval training and weight loss: Yawn!

  1. In the journal article,​ Evolved to Exercise, in last month’s Scientific American, Herman Potzner describes​ his findings. “Research​ from my lab and others has shown that physical activity​​ has little effect on daily​ energy​ expenditure, which is one reason exercise​ is a poor tool for weight loss. Instead, ​exercise regulates the way the body spends energy​ and coordinates​ vita​l tasks.” He goes on to say, “Our bodies are evolved​ to requires daily​ physical exercise; consequently, exercise does not make our bodies work more as much as it makes them work better.” Studying the Hadza and Tsimane tribes, as well as, Glaswegian postal workers, Potzner found those who got in 15,000 steps or spent 7 hours on their feet had the best cardiovascular health and no metabolic disease. “The lesson … is that volume matters more than intensity.”

    Seven years ago, my son lost over 100 pounds and has kept it off. His weight loss happened in the kitchen, not the gym. He made walking a priority, but the real change occurred when he modified his food sources and quantities.

  2. I see studies like this, and I think about my mother. She’s in her mid-70’s, has more body fat than she wants, borderline fatty liver disease, and just had both hips replaced. She would love to be a smaller size and will never be a good candidate for HIIT! She has little foundation of fitness and was raised in an era when any pain/discomfort was seen as a sign of doing damage to the body. Telling her to do intense exercise would be a fast-track path to alienating her. I would LOVE to see my mother find a path towards increased physical activity, (and I couldn’t care less if she never lost a pound), but these sorts of “breakthroughs” are clearly not designed with her, and people like her, in mind. I would love to see some research “out in the wild” that shows people workable strategies to improve their physical activity levels.

  3. That post on Yoni’s blog is remarkable for its candour and clarity – I hope it gets widely read amongst scientists who may find themselves in similar positions. Science reporting is by and large horrible – with the exceptions of those reporters who have spent their careers building an investigative profile in the sciences, and my hat flies off to them! – and its for exactly the reasons Dr Steele notes: media cycles move fast, reporters’ lead times are far too short, and further, to be honest, journalists are trained in humanities-based departments, and often have little to no training in reading across disciplines. In that respect, it’s the job of scientists to help ensure their research is sent out into the world with as little “clickbait” as possible, but it’s the job of scholars like me to help students learn how to read widely and carefully.

    Also, re HIIT: it has a valuable place in a balanced training regimen depending on your goals. As a cyclist, I’m doing HIIT as part of trainer rides a couple of times a week right now, but this is new because it’s mid-February. From November until last week we were doing moderate intervals at all workouts, building base fitness. I know other cyclists prefer HIIT throughout the winter, but I find that a broad strong base works for me and my strengths on the bike (I’m not a sprinter or a puncher).

    So tl;dr = like HIIT and / or had a coach advise it? Go nuts. Don’t like / no coach? You do you!

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