Creating a More Efficient Workout
Tara Gidus Collingwood, MS, RDN, CSSD, ACSM-CPT
The #1 reason people give for not exercising is that they don’t have time. With the extremely busy lives we live today, it is difficult to find the time to add anything more to our schedules, especially something that isn’t fun for many, or causes us to be uncomfortable! Why would you?
The benefits of exercise are plentiful, as you probably already know. From reducing risk for many chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes to building strength and endurance, we all know we should be doing it. Yet we find days and weeks and months go by without exercise. It is so easy to get caught up in our own grief, or just life in general, and forgo exercise.
For me, exercise is my stress relief. I am an annoying 5:00am exerciser. With a full-time job and a full household, it has to happen in the early morning or it doesn’t happen. But that is what works for me. People ask me all the time, “When is the best time of the day to exercise?” My answer: When you will do it! Everyone needs to find their right time, and their right exercise.
If you are strapped for time like many of us, I have good news. There is a type of workout that can give you many times the benefits in LESS TIME! It is called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). More efficient, more effective. Sign me up!
Yes, there is a catch. I know you were wondering. The catch is that it is hard! High intensity exercise requires you to work harder, but the good part is that it doesn’t last as long. Don’t let me scare you, though! You don’t have to be an athlete to do a HIIT workout. Remember in the old days running from one telephone pole to another and then walking to the next one before running again? Same concept.
HIIT alternates between short bursts of high intensity exercise with a less intense recovery period. Each interval can last anywhere from 10 or 15 seconds to 3 or 4 minutes. On a scale of 1-10 for effort, the high intensity interval should be at an 8 or 9, and the recovery at about a 3 or 4. The key to a good HIIT workout is not just in the pushing hard, but in the recovery. If you don’t properly recover and allow your heart rate to come back down, you won’t be able to push as hard in the intervals.
Specific benefits of HIIT workouts:
- Cellular: Increases mitochondrial capacity which in turn can reduce aging at a cellular level.
- Blood sugar: Improves insulin sensitivity and fasting glucose levels, reducing risk of diabetes.
- Heart health: Improves blood pressure, circulation, and reduces oxidative damage.
- Weight loss: You can burn more calories in less time — some studies suggest 30% more calories! You can also target abdominal fat with HIIT workouts.
- Breathing: Just two HIIT sessions per week can improve overall cardiorespiratory fitness and the amount of oxygen used during exercise.
- Mental health: Improved cognition, and in older adults, improved reaction time and cognitive flexibility. Can also help with stress relief and mood.
Frequency of HIIT
I always recommend to my clients that half of your workouts for the week can be HIIT workouts. Continuous, low-to-moderate intensity exercise is still good and has many benefits as well. But incorporating HIIT into your weekly routine can kick the intensity up so you can reap some of the benefits. Other research recommends 2-3 days per week to focus on a higher intensity workout. No need to do HIIT every day. Benefits can actually deteriorate and injury risk increases if you try to do too much.
How to HIIT
- Choose a cardiovascular exercise that you enjoy. This could be cycling, swimming, running, power walking, jump rope, etc. Or you can do high intensity bodyweight exercises like Burpees, mountain climbers, jumping jacks, squat jumps, etc.
- Decide how long you want your intervals to be and how long you want the overall workout to last. I recommend starting with 2-3 minutes of work and the same amount of time of rest. For example, 2 minutes hard, 2 minutes recovery. Repeat that 5 times for a total of 20 minutes. Add on a warmup and cooldown at 5 minutes each and you have a 30 minute HIIT workout.
- Do a 5-minute warm up at low intensity (3-4 on scale of 1-10).
- Start your first interval by increasing speed or intensity (incline on treadmill or resistance on bike). Aim for a 5-6 out of 10 for your first one and go for 2 minutes. Recover at a 3-4 intensity for 2 minutes. Recovery could be marching in place or just going down in speed and intensity on the same machine.
- Repeat 5 times, but gradually increase intensity to a 7-9 out of 10 during the high intensity intervals.
- Recover for 5 minutes at a 3-4 intensity.
You can vary the times of the intervals as you improve your fitness level. Instead of a 1:1 ratio of work to recovery, maybe you do 2:1. A very popular HIIT workout is called Tabata, named after a Japanese physician and researcher. Go hard for 20 seconds and recover for 10 seconds for a traditional Tabata workout. Repeat 8 times. Take a 2 minute recovery and do another set of 8. Recover for 2 minutes and if you’re brave do another set of 8.
One thing to remember when choosing your interval time. Obviously 30 seconds is less than 2-3 minutes. So you would think 30 seconds would be easier, right? Wrong. For the most benefit, the shorter the interval, the harder you should go. If you’re doing 20-30 seconds, aim for an 8-9 out of 10 for intensity. If you’re going 2-3 minutes, maybe you go for 6-7 on the scale.
Have fun with it! You can design your own workout as described above, or you can join one of the thousands of HIIT workouts available on various apps and fitness platforms. You don’t need to own a Peloton bike to download and use the app, which is rich in various workouts including barre, outside running, treadmill, cycle, weight training, mediation, yoga, HIIT, and many more. I use the Peloton app for many of my workouts. My other favorite is Beachbody, which provides access to another huge library of workouts, many of which are HIIT type workouts.
Tara Gidus Collingwood, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Personal Trainer, and fellow Wister. You can find her at dietdiva.net.