HIIT: A New Fitness Craze Gets Intense

HIITHIIT is HOT. “It’s the rage in the fitness industry right now,” says sports physiologist Mike Bracko, Ed.D., a trainer and skating coach at the Hockey Institute in Calgary, Canada.

HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training. It involves really short bursts of activity followed by less intense intervals that are like resting on your feet without stopping.

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The good news is that HIIT can shorten your workout, and may provide specific fitness benefits. The downside? It’s hard. Really hard.

A shorter workout

A shorter, more intense workout is very appealing to people with busy schedules. “When you do HIIT, you don’t have to work out as long as when you are doing long slow distance training—‘LSD’ training,” says Bracko. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s really, really hard. You work out as hard as you possibly can for the work interval. There are work intervals and rest intervals.”

In one study at Colorado State University, for example, 10 healthy young men (average age: 25), warmed up on a stationary bicycle for two minutes, then cycled against strong resistance as hard as they could for 30 seconds. Then they cycled easy with no resistance for four minutes. In 25 minutes, they did five 30-second high intensity bouts, with five easy four-minute cycling episodes.

“A client will ask me, ‘Am I going to have to get on the treadmill for 45 minutes?’ I’ll tell him: ‘Nope, we’re going to work out for 20 minutes, but we’re going to work out a little bit harder.’ (You can see a HIIT cycling session in this video on DrWeil.com.)

High intensity benefits

HIIT is not only shorter but may have fitness benefits that you won’t get form a more sustained, moderately paced cardio workout, studies suggest. “Looking at nine different studies, there are a lot of calories being burned,” says Bracko. “The interesting thing, though, is that there seems to be, for some reason, an increase in fat that is being burned.“ In the Colorado study, for example, the young men burned an average of 220 calories in 25 minutes—almost all of it in the 2 ½ minutes of high intensity bursts. Other studies find superior cardiovascular and metabolic benefits compared with moderate sustained aerobics, but only when HIIT is done several times a week for two or three months or more.

Is it safe?

HIIT is hard, and if you’re out of shape, you may find it challenging to keep up the pace at first. If you want to try it, consider doing it on a stationary bicycle, which is a non-impact form of aerobics—easier on your joints. Work up to maximum intensity over several sessions.

As with any new form of exercise, you should check with your doctor before starting it, especially if you have an existing medical condition. However, notes Bracko, HIIT has been studied in people who are overweight or obese, untrained (read: out of shape), and even in people with heart disease. Indeed, it’s being used in cardiac rehab programs for people who’ve had heart attacks. Says Bracko, “It seems that we can safely do some form of high intensity interval training with almost any population.”

Some people do HIIT with a trainer, who can push you during those short intense sprints, while others sign up for programs such as P90X, which has more than 80,000 Twitter followers.

Is it for everyone? Of course not. If you like long meditative runs in the park, go for it. Like fast walking? Cool. Fond of Zumba? Go for it. Into weight training? Get strong, buddy. The most important health benefits of exercise comes from doing anything rather than nothing—and spending less time doing sedentary activities like sitting. And no matter how good your cardio workout, you’ll want strength and flexibility and balance for a comprehensive workout plan. But if you want to kick it up a notch, you may want to try a little more intensity in your workouts.

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