fitness · online exercise

Can’t take the HIIT? Don’t leave the kitchen, uh, workout space. Just go slower…

Remember the show “Name that Tune”? It started in the 50s (says its Wikipedia page), but has been revivified more times than we can count (okay, not true, but a whole lot of times). I first (and last) watched it in the 70s. Here’s a long clip, but you’ll get the sense of it in the second minute (btw, I correctly named the tune!!):

Two players play Name That Tune. Check out the second minute for a glimpse.

There’s something awe-inspiring and also extremely implausible in the players’ claims that they can name that tune in 4 notes, in 3 notes, in 2 notes… 1, even?

All of this paring down of tunes to a few bare notes puts me in mind of the ever-smaller (and ever-more-intense) at-home workout plans, boasting that they can get you in shape in eleven minutes. No, ten minutes! Hey, how about seven? This one’s even based on science! Seven minutes too much? How about six? Oh, yeah? Well, I can get fit in just four minutes!

What is this exercise de-escalation arms (and legs and abs and glutes) race all about?

It’s about HIIT– high intensity interval training. What is that? See the NY Times below:

A mix of extremely short spurts of intense exercise followed by a minute or two of rest, HIIT is quick and potent, with studies showing that a few minutes — or even seconds — of interval training can improve people’s health and longevity over time.

Here’s more detail from an article by researcher/coaches who’ve studied HIIT and use it for their coaching clients:

Standard guidelines for aerobic training recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise (46% to 63% of maximal oxygen uptake)for 30 to 60 minutes per session and/or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity exercise (64% to 90%) for 20 to 60 minutes per session.

Although these traditional protocols can be effective, they may not be realistic enough for time-conscious adults because of the amount of time necessary to complete each program.

Our approach combines aerobic and resistance training into a single exercise bout lasting approximately 7 minutes. Participants can repeat the 7-minute bout 2 to 3 times, depending on the amount of time they have. As body weight provides the only form of resistance, the program can be done anywhere.

It’s been a standard part of many training plans to include some HIIT workouts, even substituting them for longer slower runs or swims or rides, for instance. You get a lot of bang for your exercise buck, as it were; and according to a recent study reported in the NY Times here, HIIT workouts might even extend our longevity. Although, looking at the actual article, the effects were small and very narrow. And to the researchers’ (or editors’) credit, they fessed up in the infographic, a part of which is below:

Reads: all cause mortality was 37% lower after HIIT compared with controls and 49% lower compared with MICT (moderate activity). But wait for it: these differences were not statistically significant. Details are everything.

So, do I have to HIIT myself over and over in order to get fitter and avoid an earlier death?

No. This no seems like it’s smiling, which makes it extra good.

On January 21, this New York Times article said that “the best exercise may not be the briefest”, citing a brand-new study by researchers at the University of Guelph. Here’s what they did to test moderate exercise against HIIT-ing:

[They decided to see] what happens if people HIIT three days a week and do not otherwise exercise on the other four, or train moderately five times a week?

…they first recruited 23 sedentary, overweight, adult men… They asked half of the men to start interval training three times a week on stationary bicycles at the lab, riding as hard as possible for 30 seconds, resting for two minutes, and repeating that sequence four to six times.

The other men began a typical moderate-exercise program, riding bikes at the lab five times a week at a pace they could comfortably sustain for 30 to 40 minutes.

Over the course of the next six weeks, the HIIT group pedaled intensely for a grand total of less than an hour, while the moderate-intensity group worked out for at least 2.5 hours each week for the same period.

What did they find out after the 6 week period?

  • Almost everyone was fitter– both hi- and moderate-intensity groups
  • those in the moderate-exercise group (but not the HIIT group) shed some body fat, improved their blood pressures, and became better able to metabolize the extra fat from a fatty milkshake (another part of the study)
  • everyone’s blood-sugar control at home was best only on the days when they exercised meaning three times a week for the HIIT riders and five for the moderate group

Very interesting…

But wait, there’s more (just a little bit; I’m almost done). It turns out we can CHOOSE what sort of exercise we want to do, as they are all good. They do different good things for us, and switching it up a bit might be fun. Here’s Guelph researcher Jamie Burr:

“All exercise is good,” Dr. Burr says. But “there are nuances.” Frequent, almost-daily moderate exercise may be preferable for improving blood pressure and ongoing blood-sugar control, compared to infrequent intervals, he says, while a little HIIT is likely to get you in shape as effectively as hours and hours of easier cycling or similar exertion.

Of course, one study does not certainty make. But I like the way it sounds. If I’m looking to leave it all out there, I can HIIT myself up and put the pedal to the metal. When I’m feeling mellower, moderate activity is also what the doctor (Burr) ordered.

Overall takeway: IT ALL COUNTS.

CW: The rest of the post consists of motivational images. Proceed at your own risk.

My favorite: slow is better than no. Truer words were never spoke.

So readers (at least those of you who didn’t bail in the midst of the motivational art): do you like HIIT? Is it satiisfyiing? Undoable? An occasional thing? Something you’re never heard of? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “Can’t take the HIIT? Don’t leave the kitchen, uh, workout space. Just go slower…

  1. Honestly I love doing HIIT workouts. However, anything that is done too much for too long starts getting me bored. So the best for me is switching between going out for a run, do workouts exercises and HIIT sessions. The most important is to feel like I don’t stop moving. Even if it’s just to go out for a walk. However there are some days I don’t go out at all.. I don’t know if that’s a big issue if all the other days of the week I am moving a lot.. No idea.
    In any ways, thanks for your post, it was interesting reading you !

    1. Thanks for the comments; yes, getting in and out quickly and without getting bored is a good thing about HIIT. I admit that I like those workouts on my bike trainer, as spending 2 hours just pedaling is NOT going to happen… 🙂

    1. Hi Heidi– I can relate on age and knees! Just FYI: HIIT doesn’t always mean high-impact. There are some intense workouts that are no-impact that I (sort of) like. If you’re looking to get maximum bang out of your workout buck, they aren’t a bad option. But like you, I try to be nice to my body as much as possible…

  2. I’ve seen HIIT promoted as a faster, more efficient way to improve cardiovascular fitness (and in some cases, lose weight), but I’m not usually that excited by HIIT style workouts. Luckily, I really enjoy my long, easy runs and don’t mind spending a little bit longer exercising to get the same health benefits. 🙂 It’s good to hear that the current science backs up people who want to do either or both!

  3. Hi Catherine! Thanks for this – I always appreciate your take on the science. I began including HIIT workouts in my routine when I joined The Alex Wagon with Cate, Susan, and Tracy; Alex incorporates range of cardio but because hers are diverse workouts, the cardio needs to be compact. I’d never used HIIT before, preferring long rides, 90-minute trainer sessions, stair climbing, and swims; I cannot tell you how much I miss the swims. :-(( I have to say I really enjoy the HIIT, more than I thought, but I would not feel satisfied at all to use it alone; the full body pleasurable fatigue I get from a long ride or a swim, including the chance to really enjoy that endorphin rush, are part of the joy of exercise for me. So IT ALL COUNTS sounds just ideal. Thanks again!

    1. Hi Kim– Thanks for the kind words! ‘m so impressed that you can stay on the trainer for 90 minutes! 45ish is pretty much my max. I agree with you about the long slow distance workouts– they are meditative and good for body and mind. I miss them, too. Hopefully sooner rather than later we’ll be back to them….


  4. I can’t do HIIT bcz i ripped the cartilage in both knees a few years back. I’m currently doing a 7 minute moderate workout 4 to 5 times a week. Sometimes I do yoga. My goal is to do the 7 minute workout daily plus yoga daily. I hope i reach that goal someday

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