By Donovan Makus
Let’s face it, the winter season usually isn’t the easiest in terms of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Between the stress of finals, Christmas dinners, and time off from school, it’s easy to fall into bad habits. One response to this is to endeavour to make a change in the New Year. Resolutions are made, gym apparel is purchased, and visits are planned, but once school inevitably becomes more intense, it’s easy to fall back into the same habitats as before; our available time declines, and it takes time to see results. Now, well into February, the gyms are a little emptier, and as reading week approaches, we have more time available to plan and prepare, making this the perfect time to try fitting in something new in our fitness plans. This is where interval training, specifically high intensity interval training (HIIT), comes into play.
HIIT is a broad, catch-all approach to fitness and training. It can be used with many forms of cardiovascular training from running to cycling, and it is adaptable to individual differences. As a form of interval training, HIIT uses higher intensity sessions to reduce the time spent on each activity, as well to push anyone following an HIIT plan to their limit. A good training plan consists of a mixture of short high intensity bursts, at near-max effort, punctuated with slower recovery intervals, when the heart and respiration rates decline, all before starting another cycle, for variable amounts of time. Adjustments may be required for some exercise equipment (like treadmills) to ensure that the total intensity of HIIT sessions doesn’t decrease over time as fitness increases. The exact numbers associated with any given HIIT routine can vary widely from total session times in the mid-teens, to thirty minutes or more. There are many helpful guides available that suggest various interval timings for different workout activities. I typically run a 20-minute, 10-cycle session.
Traditional, or steady-state, cardiovascular training is effective, but comes with a high cost in terms of time. Thankfully, for those of us who don’t relish early morning alarms to go running but also don’t want to be winded after a short run to class, HIIT provides an alternative that doesn’t require nearly as much time. With HIIT sessions usually lasting less than half an hour, it’s easy to see the advantage of this form of training in our busy lives. Combine this with all the advantages of HIIT and you have a winning package.
Research on HIIT has shown multiple benefits besides the time savings. HIIT has been demonstrated to be just as effective as medium-intensity cardio in promoting improved cardiovascular health. It is highly effective at helping burn calories and improving body composition, and it has also been found to specifically target abdominal fat stores. HIIT is especially effective when combined with diet changes. Additionally, it has also been shown to increase the HIIT user’s VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen that can be made available to someone at peak muscular activity, particularly for people beginning to exercise. Exercise, such as HIIT, also plays a part in our mental health; the corresponding release of chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins help us deal with stress, have better sleep cycles, and experience other mental health benefits. Insulin levels and resistance are also positively changed by regular use of HIIT intervals. HIIT has even been shown to boost exercise enjoyment in some populations as some participants found it easier to perform varying sets in less time than steady-state cardiovascular training. This often proves to be more enjoyable than lengthy, steady-state cardio sessions. Now, having examined the benefits of HIIT, the question presents itself; what’s the catch? For HIIT, the answer is complex and personal. The nature of HIIT sessions with their heavy workload is not for everyone. Some people prefer shorter, more intense workouts as they can keep on moving as they count down the minutes. Others prefer the longer, easier workouts found in traditional cardiovascular training. Deciding which of the two you prefer is completely up to you. The nature of HIIT also typically makes for a solitary pursuit; it’s difficult to maintain a conversation when you’re alternating between flat-out intervals and recovery periods. Finally, the HIIT enacts a heavy toll on your body. When I first started my HIIT regimen, soreness and muscle fatigue seemed to be my constant companions and, sometimes, deciding to don my running apparel was a struggle of mind over matter. Overtraining remains an issue with HIIT as there is always the temptation to add more sessions once you begin to see results; this can be counterbalanced by cross-training on off-days. Despite some of these downsides, the results and effectiveness of HIIT stand out in a fitness market saturated with gimmicks and fads. We’re sometimes reminded that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and this applies to HIIT as well.
HIIT isn’t magic. It still requires time and effort, but thanks to its advantages, it provides a more time-efficient way to improve cardiovascular fitness, one that doesn’t involve endless hours spent on the treadmill or stationary bike. As a form of exercise, you should carefully consider your physical health before starting a HIIT routine, and this is something that should ideally be discussed with a medical professional. Despite these cautions, making the change to incorporate some HIIT into your fitness routine will pay dividends both in the short and long term. It may not look like it now, but summer is around the corner, and starting a HIIT interval now will allow some time for the positive benefits to arrive just in time! Let’s make a positive change moving forward.