What’s ‘HIIT’ all about?

Is HIIT a quick fix?

Many articles in the last couple of years, especially the tabloids, have jumped on the idea that we can replace our 30 minutes of exercise a day with just a few minutes of HIIT training!  ‘High-intensity micro workouts’ certainly sound great especially to those of us who don’t have time to fit in the longer periods of exercise and it certainly fits with our quick-fix culture!  I myself am not at all convinced that just three minutes of exercise a week as some articles suggest can really help our overall health as much as they would like to think.  Whilst I’m not against some HIIT exercise done sensibly, the Dangers of HIIT Training cannot be ignored, and I urge you strongly to read that article as well.  This article however is an overview of what HIIT is all about.

What is HIIT training?

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is basically introducing a few short bursts of high intensity activity with short periods of recovery in between, for a few minutes each week. It can be varied in many different ways, so it’s hard to group all HIIT programmes in the same bracket; one common example is 8-10 one-minute bursts ‘all-out exercise’ at almost maximal aerobic capacity, with one minute of rest between each burst. It could, however be longer; say a 4 minute bout of high intensity with a 3 minute rest, or even simply short 10-20 second ‘all-out’ bursts, not even at maximum effort with longer lower intensity recovery periods for a few minutes.

The research I’ve read seems to suggest that we don’t really know the best way to carry out vigorous HIIT training, in terms of duration and intensity for optimal health and weight loss. I suspect it’s different for all of us.

‘The Truth about Exercise’ -BBC

I was very interested to watch the BBC Horizon program with Michael Moseley. It is clear that exercise is very important. It is also clear that we are all different so what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another – we do need to find an individual exercise programme that works for each of us. The last statement “there’s one thing for sure, that sitting is a killer” rings true to me. 

How does HIIT work?

Aerobic fitness can be measured by how efficiently your heart and lungs get oxygen into your body, and it is an excellent future health predictor.  HIIT works on the basis that vigorous exercise is good for you and that you activate more of the body’s muscle cells (80%) compared with the 20-40% for walking or moderate cycling or jogging.  This in turn balances glycogen and insulin and helps to reduce blood sugar levels. Since it’s hard to sustain high intensity exercise for any length of time, it needs to be done in short bursts with rest periods.

How can I do HIIT?

Many gyms now offer HIIT-training groups, as it has become a real fad and the new ‘in-thing’.  It is commonly done on the bike, treadmill, rowing machine or more and more within multi-activity group sessions, which incorporate lots of different activities.

Boot Camp

Boot camp is group training that focuses on fat loss, camaraderie, and team effort.  It is often outdoors, so it can be similar to military basic training. It involves a mixture of interval training and various intense explosive routines, with cardiovascular exercise, lifting weights or objects, obstacle course racing, strengthening such as push-ups/sit-ups/pull-ups with many other cross fit routines.  Outdoor madness and getting muddy can be excellent fun, which motivates us to keep it up, so it has to be a good thing-right!?  My wife Jo has really enjoyed a women’s ‘fat-furnace’ session, I think it could also be done in the swimming pool, but I guess many of us are not so inspired by this idea, but it should not be ignored.  I’m sure ‘Aqua-HIIT’ will soon be introduced (and this doesn’t mean being splashed by the kids)….

Alternative ways to HIIT exercise

I think there are many ways of incorporating HIIT into our existing exercise programmes and also into our daily life, even if it’s not always the vigorous HIIT at maximum effort.

When I commute on my bike to work I often stand out of the saddle and pedal for short bursts, sometimes to ‘HIIT’ the hills or just to change my riding position. I certainly get a little out of breath, so I count these as good HIITS, with the gentle aerobic exercise in-between.

When I go jogging, I usually find one or two (gentle in my case) hills to incorporate into the jog.  This is actually impossible for me not to do, as I live on a hill!

Traditional exercises, such as skipping, jumping, bouncers could also be considered HIIT exercise.

Some sports, like squash and football naturally incorporate HIIT.  Other sports can, like tennis, be done in a HIIT fashion (at high level, or singles) or a more low level, aerobic relaxed way (‘social doubles’)

Sometimes just cleaning the house could be a good HIIT and has a great double benefit!

Gardening can keep you active and you can easily work up a sweat, but be careful if you’re digging or bending over weeding or planting for long periods of time.

Walk the dog up a steep hill, if they haven’t lagged behind?

HIT the stairs not the lift!  My friend Paul who’s done a sitting desk job for many years has recently had quite a lot of back pain, and he’s taken to climbing the stairs instead of the lift, which he’s done for many years, and he’s found this very beneficial.

Should I give up my current exercise and take up HIIT instead?

My initial response is NO! I don’t think HIIT should be your only form of exercise, just add some HIIT into your existing routine, however…

If your current exercise is giving you strain, is boring, uninspiring and not enjoyable, you probably won’t stick at it for much longer, in which case, Yes! Find an exercise that’s fun and enjoyable that doesn’t give you injuries or pain!  Personally I’m going to stick to commuting on my bike, my gentle 30-minute jogs, swimming and tennis. I may not get super fit, unless I add more HIIT into it, but I’m more than happy if I’m healthy and the rest of my concern needs to be about my diet…


1BBC 28th February 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17177251

2Daily Mail 25/2/2013   HYPERLINK “http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2284429/How-minutes-exercise-” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2284429/How-minutes-exercise-week-change-life.html

Article by Nigel Stepto and Chris Shaw. A good balanced introduction

HYPERLINK “http://theconversation.com/health-check-high-intensity-micro-workouts-vs-traditional-regimes-18617” http://theconversation.com/health-check-high-intensity-micro-workouts-vs-traditional-regimes-18617

4The Risks and benefits of High Intensity Interval Training  http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/can-you-hit-it-the-risks-and-benefits-of-highintensity-interval-training-8601233.html

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