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’  sound great, especially to those of us who don’t have time to fit in the longer periods of exercise, and they certainly fit 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 suggested.  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 of ‘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’

I was very interested to watch the BBC Horizon program with Michael Mosley. 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, making it 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, combined with many other CrossFit routines.  Outdoor madness and getting muddy can be excellent fun, which motivates us to keep going, but please, please just don’t overdo it and strain yourself. Listen to your body and enjoy the exercise.

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.

Traditional exercises, such as skipping, jumping and bouncers, could also be considered HIIT exercise. Some sports, like squash and football, naturally incorporate HIIT. Other sports like tennis can 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, bending over weeding or planting for long periods of time. Walk the dog up a steep hill, if they haven’t lagged behind!

Finally, try HIITing the stairs and 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 found 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.

That being said, if your current exercise is giving you strain, is boring, uninspiring or 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 besides, the rest of my concern needs to be about my diet…

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