Scared of High-Intensity Interval Training? A Heart Monitor Can Make It Fun and Easy
High-intensity interval training is one of the biggest trends in fitness, but it has always seemed a bit scary to me. To a mere mortal with achy knees and an aging body, even the acronym — HIIT — sounded intimidating.Posted — Updated
High-intensity interval training is one of the biggest trends in fitness, but it has always seemed a bit scary to me. To a mere mortal with achy knees and an aging body, even the acronym — HIIT — sounded intimidating.
But recently, I overcame my fears of intense interval training, which involves bursts of all-out exercise followed by brief periods of rest. When it was all over, not only did I feel great, but to my surprise, I enjoyed it.
So how did I overcome my fears about high-intensity training?
It began with a heart rate monitor. Alex Chriest, a fitness coach at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute in Orlando, showed me how using a heart rate monitor could make high-intensity exercise not only easier, but more fun.
Chriest, who has a doctorate in education, recommends a Polar heart rate monitor with a chest strap sensor and watch, though there are many other good brands that include a strap. (Wirecutter has reviewed the best wrist fitness trackers with heart monitors.) Just set the watch with your weight, height, age and gender and put it on your wrist. I wrapped the chest strap just at the base of my sports bra, and almost immediately, the watch began reporting my resting heart rate, which is around 80 beats a minute. (A normal resting heart rate ranges from 60 to 100 — a lower rate suggests better fitness and more efficient heart function.) For my workout, I chose a stationary bike, but others in the group seminar I was attending chose a treadmill, stair climber or rowing machine. My first task was an easy warm-up for just three minutes. So far so good.
Next, Chriest issued a challenge. Push hard for three minutes. The goal was to push ourselves into a discomfort zone, but not a pain zone, and see how high we could push our heart rates. Three minutes? My legs were fresh, I hadn’t yet broken a sweat, so I knew I could handle it.
Off we went, with Chriest helpfully counting down. “Two more minutes! 90 seconds! Just one more minute! Push! Push!” And before I knew it, we were done. I’d pushed my heart rate to 145 beats a minute.
Chriest promised us a full three-minute break, but encouraged us to keep moving at a moderate pace during our recovery time. Then he issued another challenge: This time during our three-minute sprint, try to push our heart rates higher than before. Stay in the discomfort zone, not the pain zone. And off we went.
As I pedaled and watched my heart rate begin to rise, something changed. Instead of exercise, this workout suddenly felt like a competition. How hard could I push myself? With just a minute to go, my heart rate hovered around 145. Knowing that I had just 60 seconds to beat my last heart rate number, I was up for the challenge and pushed harder. When I stopped, I’d reached 160.
I was tired, but my three minutes of recovery felt great. Chriest promised just two more intervals of exercise and recovery, urging us to keep pushing our heart rates up, but reminding us that the goal was just discomfort, not pain. It still felt like a contest, and over the next two intervals, I managed to push my heart rate to 166. I win!
And then suddenly, we were done. I had exercised for a total of 30 minutes counting warm up and cool down, with 12 of those minutes devoted to really intense exercise. I was sweating and panting far more than I ever had from an hourlong treadmill workout. Plus, it had been interesting and fun.
“A lot of people are very competitive with themselves," Chriest said. “When they see on the heart rate monitor that they are in the range, it is almost like a game. It’s not a subjective feeling of ‘I think I’m pushing myself hard enough.’ You walk away knowing you got a lot of benefit from it.”
Chris Jordan, director of exercise physiology at the Human Performance Institute, agrees that high-intensity interval training suffers from a public image problem.
“My 82-year-old mother is doing interval training,” Jordan said, by walking around the ground floor of her house and then exerting herself a little more by walking up and down the stairs. She repeats the sequence a few times.
And that’s where the heart rate monitor proves so useful. Instead of guessing whether you’re pushing yourself hard enough, you can see exactly how hard your heart is working and how easily you recover. Based on my workout experience, Chriest set my target heart rate range goals between 145 and 166 — the low and the high numbers I posted during my workout, which represented between 70 and 90 percent of my maximum heart rate. While you can do the same workout to determine your target range, make sure you check with a doctor first.
How do you know if you’re in the 70-90 percent range? Jordan offers additional guidance on how to figure out your own target heart rate and what it means to push yourself to the “discomfort zone.”
Using those three elements — perceived exertion, talk test and fatigue level after the workout — combined with the numbers shown on your heart rate monitor will help you determine your own 70-90 percent target heart rate zone.
Some things to remember when using a heart rate monitor and calculating your target heart rate.
While I’m sold on high-intensity exercise, I still wish we could come up with a better name for it. How about fun, fast interval training, or FFIT?
“High-intensity interval training makes time go by faster, and it is more fun," Chriest said. “It’s not jogging for an hour. I like it because the rest periods go by fast and before you know it, it’s over.”
Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.