Every few years, the exercise recommendations for good health seem to change. If you are old enough, you probably remember when the recommendation for aerobic exercise was to walk 20 minutes, 3 times a week.  What we know today from ongoing research and what we knew 35 years ago are worlds apart.  That 20 minutes became 30 minutes, which became more than 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week.

In 2008, we got the following instructions for how much exercise to do in order to reap substantial health benefits: All Americans should perform at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity—or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity—aerobic physical activity each week.

Roy is a 51 year old US Skype client of mine.  He is overweight with a BMI of 31.4, has high blood pressure, and is pre-diabetic.  His physician has him on two different blood pressure medications, both of which have had noticeable side effects. Roy also has begun a minimal dose of Glucophage to keep his sugar in check.  His doctor also asked him to do daily 30 minutes walks.  Although his sugar has dropped, it is still too high. The blood pressure meds have only lowered his pressure slightly.  Roy got in touch with my office asking if we can help him restore good health.  After his initial workup with a dietician, we began to concentrate more on Roy’s exercise. Some very interesting results occurred…but it took a while.

I began to talk to Roy about the great benefits of exercising more intensely.  It’s absolutely true that moderate exercise has many benefits.  For many, getting 150 minutes per week while staying active otherwise can improve health, prevent many terrible diseases, and enhance quality of life.  Yet, if we can increase the intensity from time to time, all of these benefits can be far more pronounced.  In addition, there are some advantages to higher intensity exercise that one won’t get from moderate exercise.

How can I get more intense?

It isn’t practical for many adults to exercise intensely all the time.  All out exercising doesn’t give aerobic benefit if we are above the aerobic range.  The benefits are different for active children or teenagers, than they are for adults. Our bodies aren’t built for continuous activity, and we are occupied with the daily responsibilities of working and raising our families.  So, how can one get the benefits of high intensity exercise? What’s the best way to maximize your workout?

The answer is to use a technique called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).  This can be applied to any form of exercise. Newer research has revealed that short–burst HIIT, or sprint interval training elicits meaningful cardiovascular and metabolic responses (Boutcher 2011).

What is HIIT and how do I apply it?

The basic idea is to take any aerobic exercise, and every so often do it more intensely. Let’s say you are walk 35 minutes per day at a moderate pace.  In this case, every fourth minute you can power walk or break into a jog for one minute.  Then you would return to the original pace you were walking for another four minutes, and then repeat the one-minute jog. You would do this the entire 35 minute session.  If you are swimming you can decide that every tenth lap will be very fast and then return to your previous pace.  So the 10th, 20th, 30th laps and so on, will be all out effort.  Speed is the way to add intensity.  Using hills, steps, inclines on a treadmill or more resistance on your exercise bike or elliptical every so often also does the job.  The benefits of exercising in this manner are very beneficial.

The benefits of HIIT

By adding occasional intensity into your current workout, you get all the great health benefits without adding any additional (and valuable) time to your workout.

Here are the main benefits of HIIT:

Build endurance, boost metabolism, and burn calories

High intensity training enables you to increase your endurance while doing any type of exercise.  A study showed participants doubling the length of time they could ride a bicycle while keeping the same pace because of HIIT.

HIIT also helps you consume more oxygen than a non-interval workout routine. This increases metabolism and burns more calories at a faster rate. Studies show that 15 minutes of high intensity interval training burns more calories than jogging on a treadmill for an hour.

24 hours after a HIIT workout your body is still burning calories and fat at an elevated rate whereas in steady-pace workouts, it won’t.

Good for heart health, brain, and mood

They say that intense training helps build better results. With interval training it’s easier to push yourself, because of the “rest interval” that comes right after the intense interval. This helps keep a healthy heart and helps blood flow effectively throughout your whole body.

Anytime we can exercise with intensity, it helps our general mood. High-level aerobics, even in short spurts changes the neuropathway function in the brain.  It also secretes more feel-good hormones.  This type of high intensity exercise has also proven effective in breaking addictive behaviors.

No equipment necessary

HIIT workouts are extremely cost efficient because you need zero equipment! All you need is a little open space. Go outdoors and walk, jog, bike or skip rope using HIIT.

HIIT is good for both beginners and expert exercisers. It’s a quick way to see results and you can never get bored with your workout!

I changed Roy’s workout.  We took the same 30 minute walk and after every 4.5 minutes, he walked as fast as he could for 30 seconds.  After a week, we extended that interval to 60 seconds.  And two weeks later, the fast walk turned into and jog and we extended the entire workout to 35 minutes.  So Roy was now putting in 7 sets of jogging and only extended the workout 5 minutes.  Roy’s health began to get much better.  After 3 months of this routine and with some minor dietary changes, Roy lost a few kilos. More importantly, his sugar returned to normal and his blood pressure returned to a normal range. Roy no longer needs medication.  His spouse commented that he seemed to be in a better frame of mind and happier than he was before.

Exercise is of great importance to living a healthy life. Adding intensity has too many benefits to pass up.  Don’t do too much too fast!  Work up to a good HIIT workout at least 2 or 3 times a week and add your moderate exercise routine on the other days and it will “add hours to our day, days to your year and years to our life”.