Health Team

Heart-pounding, high-intensity training boasts workout effects in shorter time

Posted February 15
Updated February 16

Many people want to exercise but lack of time often becomes an excuse for not hitting the gym.

However, a growing exercise trend promises shorter times in the gym and with a greater heart benefit, which means a little more pain for the gain.

Many people walk for exercise or trot on a treadmill for a long, steady cardio workout. Walking and jogging are good for the heart but some people want bigger benefits, and they want them faster.

High intensity interval training is giving people those big benefits in a shorter amount of time.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sports science researcher Dr. Abbie Smith-Ryan says for healthy individuals to really challenge their hearts, workouts ought to hurt a little bit.

"Pick an intensity that you know you couldn't hold for a minute (and ten seconds)—so that minute should be pretty hard," Smith-Ryan said.

Finish the time then rest for a minute. During the rest, your heart rate will come down off its peak but remain elevated.

"Then do it again, right on the minute, and you do that 10 times," Smith-Ryan said.

The workout should make you breathe hard and feel your heart pounding, but it can be done in a little more than 20 minutes.

In two separate studies, Smith-Ryan found that protocol was very successful: One study worked with overweight or obese men and the other with overweight or obese women. Both groups gained significant cardio-respiratory and body composition benefits, decreasing body fat and increasing exercise tolerance.

Another benefit of the workout is that it's quick, Smith-Ryan said.

"Time is very important because I don't have a lot of time to put into it," said 58-year-old Libby Holding.

At Rex Wellness Center in Wakefield, Holding and her friend, 46-year-old Pepper Landson, can squeeze in a heart-pounding workout in just 30 minutes.

"Do it in a safe way, and I'd still get the same benefit as if I had 45 minutes to an hour (workout)," Landson said.

High intensity interval training is also adaptable to a wide range of exercise modalities. The training is even used at Raleigh's Triangle Rock Club.

"It's a physically demanding activity," said TRC fitness instructor Matt Hunter.

The workouts go quick, but they require endurance, too. Climber Ianian Baenes, 37, credits high intensity interval training for increasing his endurance.

"I guess it's just the adrenaline of it," Baenes said. "It's definitely a mental challenge."

Hunter says the fast results motivate members to work out more faithfully.

"These shorter, high-intensity bursts, when the heart rate is in excess of 80 to 85 percent of max heart rate, for someone who can handle it, has a much more direct and beneficial effect on body composition changes," Hunter said.

That means less body fat and more muscle to help keep climbers like Baenes on the wall longer.

Smith-Ryan says the goal of the intense workouts is to get the heart rate above a threshold that you normally would not be able to maintain. She says a 10-minute workout would not get your heart rate quite as high as it needs to be, and it would take longer to see the adaptations and benefits that she found in her studies for a 20 minute workout.

It's always a good idea to check with your physician before you begin any new kind of exercise routine, particularly if you have some underlying health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma.

High intensity interval training can help overweight or obese individuals lose weight, and it can help people with osteoarthritis decrease their joint pain.


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