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In the fifth article of our exercise series, we discuss the subject of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).


Our most precious commodity… because it is the one item in finite supply.

Once it is gone, we can never get it back.

Given that, it is not surprising that one of the biggest complaints related to exercise is that it simply takes too much time.

But fortunately, there is a solution. It is called HIIT, short for high-intensity interval training, which will give you a great workout in minutes.

So if you think you are ‘too busy’ to be physically active, you might want to think again.

HIIT—a Definition

HIIT stands for High-Intensity Interval Training.

The concept of HIIT is to do short bursts of highly intense exercise in just a few minutes, packing in the equivalent of a longer, more moderate workout in a very brief period of time.

And when we say intense, we mean the following:

  • Breathless (not winded)
  • Heart-pounding (not exploding)
  • Able to speak in single words (not complete whole sentences)

And while it may sound ‘too good to be true’, HIIT is a scientifically proven way to reap all the health benefits of exercise without the big time commitment.

The Benefits of HIIT

Here are the benefits of HIIT in a nutshell:

  1. Time. The HIIT method is great for time-pressed people. Even if your schedule is filled to the brim, you have no excuse not to exercise.
  2. Flexibility. One of the best aspects of this type of exercise is that it is highly flexible; you can apply the HIIT principles to any type of aerobic activity, e.g. running, biking, stair climbing, swimming, doing jumping jacks, jumping rope, rowing and even skipping. What type of exercise you do is less important than the fact you alternate really intense, all-out burst of exercise with less intense intervals.
  3. Simplicity. These routines require little if no additional equipment. You do not need stop watches or fancy heart rate monitors. You just need to rely on counting and cues from your body to figure out the time and intensity.
  4. Accessibility. You can do the workout anywhere. Sprint uphill for four minutes or race up multiple flights of steps. Bicycle, swim or do squats—as long as you raise your heart rate sufficiently for the required amount of time. You can even apply the principles of HITT to walking, making this method infinitely doable for everyone.
  5. Health. HIIT has tremendous health benefits including the improvement of the body’s ability to use oxygen and the expansion of blood vessels, which allows the cardiovascular system to better withstand added exertion (i.e. cardiovascular fitness).

[Make sure to consult your doctor before doing any high-intensity exercise, especially if you have been relatively inactive in the past.]

What Does a HIIT Workout Look Like?

Here are some of the classic types of high-intensity interval training workouts:

     1)     The 4-Minute Workout

Imagine getting amazing health benefits in just 4 minutes!

Here is how this simple workout works:

Step1: Warm up briefly.

Step 2: Run, swim or bike intensely for 4 minutes.

Step 3: Stop and catch your breath.

Repeat three times a week.

And it definitely works. In a recent study, overweight and sedentary but otherwise healthy men ran on a treadmill for 90% of their maximum heart rate for 4 minutes, 3 times a week for 10 weeks. They improved their endurance, blood sugar control, and blood pressure as much as a second group who exercised four times as long.

     2)     The 7-Minute Workout

With this workout, you use only body weight, a chair, and a wall. This routine is built on the idea that you alternate exercises that emphasize the large upper body muscles with those of the lower body (giving each muscle time to rest). Therefore, it is essential to respect the order of the exercises as listed here:

Step 1: Jumping jacks for 30 seconds.

Step 2: Wall sit for 30 seconds.

Step 3: Push-ups for 30 seconds.

Step 4: Abdominal crunches for 30 seconds.

Step 5: Step-up onto a chair for 30 seconds.

Step 6: Squats for 30 seconds.

Step 7: Triceps dips on a chair for 30 seconds.

Step 8: Hold plank position for 30 seconds.

Step 9: High knees, running in place for 30 seconds.

Step 10: Alternating lunges for 30 seconds.

Step 11: Push-ups with rotation for 30 seconds.

Step 12: Side plank for 30 seconds each side.

You should do these exercises in rapid succession, allowing 30 seconds between each. Your intensity level should be 8 on a discomfort scale of 1-10. If you need something a bit more challenging, there is an advanced 7-minute workout that requires a couple of dumbbells, or this ‘standing’ 7-minute  workout variation.

     3)     The 10-Minute Workout

If you love to run, bike, row or swim (but in small doses) this is the perfect workout for you.

Best part, there is only ONE minute of intense exercise in total:

Step 1: Warm up for 2 minutes.

Step 2: Pedal, run or swim ‘all-out’ for 20 seconds.

Step 3: Pedal, run or swim slow and easy for 2 minutes.

Step 4: Pedal, run or swim all-out for 20 seconds.

Step 5: Pedal, run or swim slow and easy for 2 minutes.

Step 6: Pedal, run or swim all-out for 20 seconds.

Step 7: Cool down for 3 minutes.

Do this routine 3 times a week for a total of 30 minutes of weekly exercise.

In a Canadian study, 60 seconds of strenuous exertion was shown to improve health and fitness just as much as 45 minutes of moderate exercise. In this 23-week study, those who followed an endurance routine exercised for a total of 27 hours while the HIIT participants rode 6 hours with only 36 minutes of strenuous ‘intense’ effort.

When they were tested at the end of the study, both groups had virtually identical gains! Their endurance was increased by nearly 20%, their insulin resistance was significantly improved, as was their muscles’ ability to produce energy and consume oxygen.

     4)     The 10-20-30 Training

The essentials of the 10-20-30 training are super simple. You run, ride or row on a rowing machine gently for 30 seconds, accelerate to a moderate pace for 20 seconds and then sprint as hard as you can for 10 seconds.

This is how it breaks down:

Step 1: Run (or bike or swim or row) lightly for 30 seconds.

Step 2: Run (or bike or swim or row) moderately for 20 seconds.

Step 3: Run (or bike or swim or row) at top speed for 10 seconds.

Repeat the sequence 5 times, then rest for 2 minutes and repeat the sequence 5 times again.

The entire routine takes 12 minutes to complete. If you are in good shape, add another round of 5 repeating intervals. And do this routine 3 times a week for a total of 36 minutes of weekly exercise.

But here is the catch.

Research shows that people do not like the great discomfort of the high-intensity interval and tend to simply abandon their program.

This is where the 10-20-30 training shines.

A study conducted in Denmark shows that the 10-20-30 program not only allows exercisers to train (and get the benefits!) in less time but this particular configuration seemed to make the workouts more pleasurable.

It is easy to remember.

It is low-tech.

It requires no gym membership, heart rate monitor or stopwatch (all you have to do is count!).

The best part is that the intense ‘all-out’ portion of the workout lasts only 10 seconds (which is much more manageable than 4 minutes or even 20 seconds!).

So Which Workout Is the Best?

When all is said and done, probably the 10-minute workout and the 10-20-30 training are the easiest to adopt and, thus, the ones that are most likely to be sustained over the long-term.

The 7-minute workout seems to be effective too; however, you need to carefully follow the order of the exercises. If you choose this routine, here is a great video that will help you follow the steps.

The ABCs of HIIT

There are a few guidelines you should adhere to when it comes to doing things ‘right’ with HIIT.

  1. Be Consistent. You need to build a habit of doing these routines no matter how hectic your life is. Aim to complete a workout at least three times a week.
  2. Start Small. Do not worry if you cannot do it all from the beginning. Start small and gradually work up to a workout 3 times a week.
  3. Set Aside Space. Make sure you set up a spot in your house for your HIIT workout. Equip it with everything you need to successfully complete a workout: your running shoes, a towel, a bottle of water and a chair if appropriate.
  4. Set Aside Time. Even though the beauty of the HIIT method is that it saves a lot of time, you still need to slot it into your schedule. Here are some ideas on how you can integrate it into your day:
    • Wake up 10 minutes earlier and do it first thing in the morning.
    • Do your workout during your lunch break.
    • Make your workout part of your commute. If you walk or bike to work, add some intervals on the way home.
  5. Add Music. Listening to energetic music will make your HIIT workout a lot easier and less monotonous. In fact, a study showed that people work harder when they are listening to music without finding the effort to be more unpleasant, i.e. the intensity increases but not the discomfort.

What About People With Chronic Illness?

One of the problems with people who suffer chronic health issues is that they assume they should do little physical activity—even though being active has the potential to greatly help them. Specifically, they tend to believe that vigorous exercise is very high-risk.

Recent studies prove the opposite is true. In fact, high-intensity exercise may be more effective at preventing or reversing complications associated with chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease.

For example, a 12-week randomized trial in Denmark showed that high-intensity interval walking for patients with type 2 diabetes helped control blood glucose levels better than continuous moderate exercise.

Preliminary studies show that stroke patients may improve aerobic capacity after completing a six-week high-intensity exercise program and that the improvement in cardiometabolic health may remain for months even after the program ends.

In a 2015 study of the effects of HIIT in patients with coronary artery disease and heart failure, researchers observed that HIIT seems to be safe and better accepted by patients than moderate-intensity continuous exercises, as well as more effective at improving a patient’s peak oxygen uptake and pumping ability of the heart.

But there is a BIG caveat.

High-intensity exercise is simply not suitable for everyone. In a recent article, three researchers state that HIIT “is only appropriate for low-risk individuals, moderate-risk individuals who have been cleared for vigorous intensities by a medical professional and high-risk individuals who are under direct medical supervision during exercise training.”

Therefore, anyone suffering from a serious chronic disease must absolutely check with his or her doctor before engaging in any high-intensity exercise.

HIIT Is Not a Weight Management Program

HIIT gives you big fitness benefits for a small time investment.

However, do remember that HIIT is not a ‘weight-loss’ program.  It is rather an excellent kick-start for better fitness or a way to maintain fitness when time is in short supply.

HIIT allows you to improve and maintain physical fitness. But to lose (or maintain) weight, the key is really in what you eat. And one of the best ways to keep your weight down is to fully embrace a low-fat, whole food plant-based diet.

Better yet, let’s do both!

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.