What if I told you that there is a way to change up your exercise program that could provide you with more benefits while expending less of your precious time? (Well, I suppose that this would first assume that you are exercising in the first place. Without going too far off topic, exercise on any level is imperative if you are serious about your health.) This is not a gimmick and will not cost you five installments of $19.95. The concept I’m talking about here is interval training.
This form of exercise has a body of evidence to support its benefits that seems to be constantly growing exponentially. (Go to PubMed and type in Interval Training if you’d like to see for yourself.) So what are we talking about here? As the name implies, we are referring to alternating between an activity (running, biking, swimming, push-ups, pull-ups, even weight training) and rest. The difference we are talking about is that you are doing the activity for a shorter amount of time at an elevated intensity, rather than a long, drawn out, time consuming, stint at a lower, steady intensity. This may seem counter-intuitive at first as we usually think more is always better. It’s so ingrained in our heads that the longer we hit the gym or run the greater the gains we’ll realize. However, studies are showing this is not necessarily the case.
Are you someone that has attempted to exercise to trim up that mid-section, but can’t seem to make a dent? Or maybe you ramp up the duration and frequency of your workouts still to no avail. In keeping with the theme of the last two posts, many times the type of workout you’re doing can actually be contributing to this by way of stress. (I say contributing because when we approach all issues holistically, we know that normally just one factor is not the end all be all. In this case we obviously realize that no matter how much or what type of exercise you may perform, if your diet is subpar you’ll likely never realize desired improvements). Overdoing exercising can actually activate and contribute to the previously discussed HPA axis as you are physically stressing your body. This in turn leads excess cortisol release, the subsequent conversion of muscle to fat, and the deposition of that fat in attractive places like that mid-section.
Benefits of interval training include:
-Provides the same if not better cardiovascular benefits in a fraction of the time, which is music to the ears of patients with coronary artery disease or those undergoing cardiac rehabilitation.
-Improves VO2 max (maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise). Various systems including your cardiac (heart), pulmonary (lung), vascular (blood vessels), muscular, and mitochondrial enzymes (crucial energy powerhouses of your cells) contribute to your VO2 capacity. If one of these systems is off, it lowers your VO2, or bodies ability to use oxygen. Conversely, a lower VO2 can have detrimental effects on any of these systems.
Interval training = improved VO2 max = improved global function.
-Improves capacity and utilization of oxygen which is vital for proper nerve function. In order for any nerve (brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves) to function properly they require fuel, activation by way of stimulation, and oxygen. Improving your body’s ability to utilize oxygen improves function of the overall governing system: your nervous system.
If these reasons don’t do it for you, how about burning more fat and building more muscle:
-Interval training has been shown to more effectively have an effect on something called Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). This means that after a workout your metabolic rate remains raised for anywhere from 1 to 3 days. A higher metabolism means your body is burning more fuel, or energy in the form of oxidizing fat. This same logic applies to stabilizing your blood sugar levels in that if the metabolic rate is raised, more fuel is needed. If you are someone who is diabetic or has issues with high blood sugar, this is one tactic to lower those levels by giving that glucose somewhere to go and be utilized.
-In a fraction of the time interval training has been shown to increase muscle buffering capacity and glycogen content, leading to improvements in muscle structure and performance.
So how can you implement this into your routine? This all depends on what level you are on to begin with. Simply put, doing intervals means doing some work and then resting. Instead of doing the traditional (and somewhat boring) steady state training for a lengthy time period, try switching it up. After doing a warm up (walk or jog for approx. 5 minutes) try stepping up the intensity for anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute, followed by a rest anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute, and repeat. This will add some different flavor to the usual repetitive routine, hopefully reinserting some fun back into your workout. Again, it cannot be overstated that this is all individually based, and you should always consult with your physician before beginning or altering any exercise or diet program.
As stated earlier, this can be implemented with all types of activities and is widely used in popular Cross Fit regimens. One method of this is called TABATA Intervals. After a warm up this is a four minute exercise routine consisting of an alternating cycle of 20 seconds of high intensity and 10 seconds rest, repeated 8 times. Find a healthcare professional or certified trainer who can best advise you on a good starting point as far as times, intensity and weight. It is normal to be laboring through the later ends of the cycle as we are trading time for intensity. If in doubt, always err on the side of caution and start slower, with less weight, and less intensity. When you feel like you can push it a little more, give it a shot, always being aware of and listening to your body. Also remember that in order to reap the benefits here, elevated effort and exertion are required. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are stepping your game up with some interval training when you are actually just working out at the same pace for less time.
In addition to equal or better benefits and the less taxing effects on the body when compared to prolonged, steady state training, utilizing this type of workout saves maybe our most valuable commodity: time. One of the most common excuses for not exercising is not having enough time. Implementing some degree of interval training as a time efficient alternative SHOULD eliminate that excuse and bring you closer to getting to where you need to be.