High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for Fat Loss

I don't preach a lot about exercise. Why? Because I figure most of you have already heard enough about it. After all, it's half of the holy "eat less, exercise more" mantra. At some point or another, most of us have buckled down for hours of pacing on the treadmill (or at least someone has told us that's what we should be doing).

So don't worry: just like I don't support dieting, I won't say anyone should join a local gym to spend all their free time latched to exercise equipment.

That said, I think some forms of exercise are more likely to promote a healthy body composition than others. I've spoken about the benefits of strength training and resistance activity in a previous post, where I also warned against overdoing cardio.

I was a cardio queen myself in previous years, so I harbor some level of resentment toward this kind of activity. It's painful to think of all the hours I spent peddling away on the elliptical like a gerbil, thinking I was burning calories when really the only thing I burned effectively was my adrenals.

After all, who has an hour to devote to cardio every day? Many conventional experts are even recommending six 90-minute cardio sessions a week (and then resistance training on top of that!). Talk about discouraging. If you weren't motivated to exercise before, that kind of talk will send you straight back to the couch.

HIIT: More Effective than Cardio? Absolutely!

At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, you can actually lose fat exercising for only a few minutes three times a week. No, you don't have to buy any DVDs or weird dumbbells that shake. It's called high intensity interval training, or HIIT. You may have also heard of this referred to as burst training or sprints. Even Al Sears got in on the magic in his book about PACE exercise.

The basic idea of HIIT is that you exercise in short bursts of intense activity for up to 60 seconds at a time (or as little as 10 seconds). In between bursts your activity level should be easy or moderate. The rules aren't hard and fast, but usually a session lasts no longer than 20 minutes, with 8-10 minutes being more common. You can do HIIT while walking, swimming, on a trampoline, with weights, on a bike, or with a jump rope. Basically, you can do HIIT with whatever equipment you already have, or even no equipment at all.

And HIIT isn’t just a one-size-fits-all exercise. Some hard trainers like to do tabata sprints, an intense four minute workout that includes eight 20-second intense sprints. If you don’t think four minutes is a long time, try it and you’ll think again. It will seem more like four years if you're doing genuine tabata sprints.

But you can also incorporate HIIT concepts without exhausting yourself to the point of puking up your breakfast (doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of the most important meal of the day, anyway?). During a leisurely stroll or bike ride, for example, throw in a few 30-60 second bursts of intense activity with recovery periods in between. Most people can get through such a short burst of exercise. Knowing it’s over in a minute and that you’ll get plenty of recovery time afterward makes it pretty doable in you ask me.

The Benefits of HIIT

HIIT may play an important role in lowering the fat setpoint, as mentioned in this great post by Stephan Guyenet at Whole Health Source. This could be because, at some level that far surpasses calorie-counting, interval training alters the body's biochemistry to make it actually want to lose weight. This may include increasing the body's sensitivity to important weight and appetite regulators like insulin and leptin.

Short bursts of activity are also promoted by Jon Gabriel in his book, The Gabriel Method (which I'm eating up right now and looking forward to doing a review about later this month). Gabriel even suggests using visualization during sprints--such as imagining being chased by a leopard or a shark--to further communicate to the body on a biochemical level that fat loss is the way to go. After all, in caveman days you needed to be sleek and fit so you could outrun that pesky saber tooth!

Mercola also talks about the benefits of interval training in this article, where he also cites a recent study that showed just how effective burst exercise can be:

In their trial, women either exercised for 20 minutes, alternating 8 seconds of sprinting on a bike with 12 seconds of exercising lightly, or exercised at a regular pace for 40 minutes. After exercising three times a week for 15 weeks, those who did the 20-minute, alternating routine lost three times as much fat as the other women.

As a final argument in favor of HIIT over long periods of aerobic activity, check out this photo comparing the body of a marathon runner versus a sprinter. Which body would you want?

This post is a part of Real Food Wednesday.

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