No, this is not a post to convince you that exercise is a waste of time. Exercise is not a waste of time, yet the lack of time is the biggest single reason people give for not exercising. Granted, the current “official” recommendations for exercise don’t help. The American Academy of Sports Medicine and U.S Department of Health and Human Services each have minimum recommendations for exercise that add up to about 4 hours per week. These are minimums! Depending on your goals and current state, you may need more. With intimidating recommendations like this, of course people don’t even try. For many, the thought of spending an hour at a time, 4 days a week on an elliptical at the gym is unpleasant and unlikely.
This post is about optimizing exercise time when your time is limited. The technique I discuss won’t necessarily get you to the ideal level of 5-7 hours of exercise a week or even the minimum of 4, but it’s a start. Research shows, you don’t have to get the full 4 hours to reap benefits. Furthermore, once people start seeing results from their exercise routines, they find it easier to continue and even increase their exercise volume. While you may not achieve 7-minute abs, you can make significant progress in as little as 8 minutes. But before we get to this little secret, I’ll drag you through a bit of science. So if you want the bottom line, just scroll to the end. For now, here are some…
- Steady State Exercise – Is what you are doing if you use one of those cardio machines (e.g. treadmill, recumbent bike, elliptical, stair climber) for 30 to 60 minutes at a near constant speed and resistance. Some people actually attempt these kind of exercise in an environment known as “outdoors” using equipment known as “the street”. Theoretically this can also be done with calisthenics like jumping jacks, push-ups or even jump ropes but no one seems to do that kind of thing at 30-minute clips.
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – An exercise routine that involves performing one or more exercises at full speed for brief periods alternated with brief periods of lower intensity or complete rest.
- Aerobic Exercise – Exercise that is low enough in intensity to depend mostly on the body’s intake of oxygen to provide energy. Steady state exercise is primarily aerobic.
- Anaerobic Exercise – Higher intensity exercise that depends more on easily available forms of energy in the body (ATP, Glycogen). These forms of energy are available to your body in limited quantities without a requirement for external contributors such as the oxygen you breathe. If you get the gist of what I am talking about and remain interested, this is the time when you should apologize to your high school biology teacher because you did need to know that in the future. HIIT depends heavily on anaerobic energy.
- Resistance Exercise – Activity that involves your muscles contracting against a force that opposes the motion (e.g. weight training) with the expectation of increases in strength, tone, mass, and/or endurance. These are exercises that stimulate skeletal muscle fitness more than cardiac muscle fitness.
HIIT Me With Your Best Shot
There is a near religious debate among fitness fanatics about what exercise protocol is superior. If you hang with these types of people, you’ll hear disparaging remarks about the joggers from the weight lifters and the other way around. These folks need to get a life. This isn’t a post that makes the case for HIIT as the superior choice. Instead, it explains how people who are intimidated by the time commitments required for exercise can benefit from HIIT. Ideally, your exercise routine would consist of steady state, HIIT, and resistance training. One of the key advantages of HIIT training is that it allows you to get many of the benefits of all three.
So assuming you’re clear on what steady state is (and if you’re not, just read the definition above because that’s all you need to know), let’s dive a little deeper into HIIT.
High Intensity Interval Training first came to light in the 1990s after a study led by Izumi Tabata compared the fitness improvements between two groups after following different training regimens. A steady state group worked out for 1 hour 5 times a week. The HIIT group exercised at maximum intensity for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest. They cycled through that sequence 8 times for a total of 4 minutes of exercise. HIIT exercise was done 4 days a week with the addition of 1 steady state session. At the end of the study, the results showed similar gains in aerobic endurance capacity for each group. In addition, the HIIT group’s anaerobic strength improved as well.
Imagine being able to get the same results in 25% of the time! These results kicked off a near infinite number of follow-up studies on how “Tabata sets” and other HIIT regimens affect general fitness. And while these studies helped to tone down the hype, the case for HIIT is still impressive. Perhaps most interesting to people reading this is that study after study shows that when it comes to burning fat and building muscle, HIIT is superior to steady state exercise. I think I need to say it again. You will burn more fat and build more muscle by exercising in short repeated bursts than you will through long workouts at a sustained pace.
Realistic Approach to Wellness
So, how do we use this information practically? It depends. Your actual activity plan needs to reflect your wellness goals. Your best option is to get as much variety of activity at possible. That being said here are some general guidance.
If You’re Not Currently Aerobically Fit
If you haven’t exercised at all for a long time or if your heart rate per minute after a period of sustained rest is above the mid-70s, focus on steady state training to improve your aerobic fitness. Since I don’t want you to waste your time exercising, try some of the following to exercise productively:
- Take the stairs more often. This doesn’t mean walk all four flights to get to your 4th floor office at work on day one. Instead take the elevator up 2 stories and walk the rest. Work your way up to the full 4 flights.
- Walk up the escalator or along the moving walkway.
- Park your car twice the distance from the entrance to the store or office as opposed to where you usually park.
- When you need to have an important discussion with someone, do it while walking.
- Adopt some of the Healthy Transportation practices I proposed in an earlier post.
All of these practices involve you doing something you were going to do anyway. The net effect on your time is minimal but comes with a huge payback. Once you’ve built up your aerobic fitness you can…
Add HIIT to Your Workout Routine
There are so many ways to do High Intensity Interval Training. The Tabata protocol is a start but in time you should build up the duration of your high intensity periods and the overall routine. The best part about HIIT is that it can be done with or without equipment. You can also integrate strength and resistance training. Here are some ways I integrate HIIT into my fitness regimen.
- Tabata – Because I had to drive last time I went to the gym I didn’t get the steady state workout I usually get by walking or cycling. So I did 2 Tabata rounds on the rowing machine. No cardio machine in the gym provides as good an overall workout as the rowing machine. Also, no cardio machine is more boring. But I can tolerate just about anything for 8 minutes. And 8 minutes of Tabata on a rowing machine is a real workout.
- Travel – When I travel for work I don’t sleep as much, I don’t get to interact with my family as much, and I have less access to other distractions. So, I usually sneak in some extra workouts. On days when I don’t do weights, that extra workout usually consists of 30 minutes on a bike or elliptical. I put my music on shuffle and I alternate. high intensity and rest with each song change. That can lead to some long high intensity rounds so a more gentle alternative is to just go 90 seconds on, 60 seconds off or some other combination that works for your fitness level. I often read while I do this. Since most hotels have TVs in their exercise area, I could just as well watch TV. As an aside, most people’s anaerobic energy supply become exhausted after about 90 seconds so high intensity work that lasts more than 2 minutes is rarely as high intensity as you think.
- HIIT As Your Only Exercise – For the last two months, in order to “live this post”, I decided to forgo my usual weight and gym routine for an at-home body-weight-only HIIT routine. This was over the holidays and like everyone else, I gained weight. In December, I did a different HIIT routine three days a week. You can easily find these routines on YouTube. Each was about 30 minutes. Since every routine was different I got a full body workout and was never bored. In January, I found one routine that I stuck to. It had some crazy exercises that were challenging to master but had great results. One exercise combined doing a one-armed push up and a jumping jack at the same time. It took me most of the month to master it. There was another that I never mastered but on my best day made me look like the least coordinated Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. Regardless by the end of those two months I lost all my holiday weight with a total investment of 90 minutes of exercise a week. And these were exercises I did in my home or hotel room with no equipment.
So, what are your reasons for not exercising? Is it lack of time? Is it that exercising is boring? Is it lack of motivation to go to the gym? How about “I never see results?” HIIT may be the solution to all of these. And if it isn’t I bet we could work together and find one.
Full Disclosure: I am not a doctor and suggest you consult one if you are not currently exercising and considering HIIT.