If you’re expecting to live a long and healthy life, movement, and plenty of it, simply must be part of your overall plan. No surprises there. However, we all know that when life gets busy, regular exercise often slides down the to-do list. There just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. Sound familiar? If so, now might be a good time to work some High Intensity Interval Training, or ‘HIIT,’ into your routine to get maximum bang for your movement buck, in the minimum amount of time. Sound interesting? Here’s what you need to know and how to get started:

What’s HIIT all about?

As the name suggests, HIIT workouts involve brief intense bursts of effort, alternating them with slower recovery periods. This should enable you to complete your work-out in a relatively short amount of time, say 15 – 30 minutes, once or twice a week, depending on your fitness level. So, when time is tight, with HIIT, you won’t need to log countless hours on the treadmill or in the pool to get your fitness dose. In sum, high-intensity interval training is an incredibly quick and efficient way to condition the body.

There’s no shortage of reasons to love HIIT.

In addition to its time-saving appeal, HIIT is a powerful way to rev up your fat-burning metabolism, process your glucose fuel cleanly and, thanks to a surge in the levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or ‘BDNF,’ boost cognitive function. Studies show that HIIT is a more efficient way to achieve all these things than long, slow cardio workouts. 

While HIIT is busy improving the performance of your cardiovascular system when you’re in motion – fast, intense motion – it’s also boosting your metabolism. By exercising hard, you’re boosting the capacity of the mitochondria, the power plants inside the cells, to generate energy. That’s especially important because mitochondrial function declines with age. And you’re giving your resting metabolism a lift as well — HIIT sessions improve insulin sensitivity for up to three days after exercise. And, perhaps best of all, you can do HIIT almost anywhere, anytime, with minimal equipment – for instance, working with a speed rope or doing a fast-paced bodyweight exercise routine that might include burpees and squats. 

Build your HIIT routine from the ground up.

If your fitness has taken a backseat over the last few pandemic years, keep in mind that starting slow and building your fitness back up to a decent level before taking on a HIIT routine is the way to go. That goes double for those heading into their late 30s and beyond. Like it or not, as we age, it’s important to take extra care to prevent injury (no matter how invincible you may think you are). 

To start on your fitness rebuilding process, focus practicing proper movement patterns, using good form, and working on over-all conditioning. Trouble is, if you increase intensity and speed without this foundation—for example, jumping full throttle into endless rounds of burpees —the odds of hurting yourself skyrockets. Let the mantra “do no harm” ring in your ears as you begin the re-conditioning process, pre-HIIT. 

Wondering how ready you are – or aren’t – to get into an HIIT groove? A good rule of thumb: if you can do five great chest-to-ground push-ups or a few, clean pull-ups, you should be good to go. Got blood pressure or heart issues? First check in with your health professional about HIIT to get the OK.

Ready, set, ramp up.

OK, so assuming you’re good to go, and the HIIT route sounds better to you than an hour spent plodding on a stationary bike, then be advised, HIIT is supposed to be, well, for a lack of a better word, a bit masochistic. The high intensity bursts should feel grueling, close to your max effort – you know, that point where talking is impossible. If you are a relatively fit but a complete HIIT newbie, give this beginners’ approach a shot – it’s a deceptively simple format you can apply to pretty much any type of exercise:

  1. Ramp up for 1 minute.
  2. Go hard for 1 minute.
  3. Drop back down to a comfortable pace for 3 minutes.
  4. Repeat. 

Try doing three microburst rounds according to this pattern, within your normal workout routine. Over time, as you get more comfortable with it, you can add more high-intensity intervals throughout your sessions. It will make your workout fly by and turn monotonous activities — like swimming laps — into a kind of game. Even better, it’s great for your body, as the manageable physical stress of HIIT promotes “autophagy,” the body’s youth-supporting cellular repair and cleaning system. 

Go hard!

Once you’ve scaled up and are ready for an all-in HIIT groove, use these three protocols, designed by my colleague, wellness pro Adam Ticknor, as a guide. These approaches keep the “high-intensity” part short and the “recovery” phase long—and will still get you the results you seek in considerably less time. Don’t forget, at each session, before you get rolling, be sure to spend several minutes warming up – walking and mobility moves are helpful:

  1. FIND A VERY STEEP HILL – then sprint up it as hard as you can for maximum 10 to 14 seconds. Rest for a full 3 minutes, walking lazily back down the hill. Repeat 7 times.   
  2. ON A STATIONARY BIKE OR ROWING MACHINE – set it to a moderate resistance level, then do a 20-second high-intensity sprint, followed by 2 to 3 minutes mellow peddling or rowing. Repeat 6 to 8 times. Check out some online training videos for good rowing form, which is especially important for those high-intensity bouts.
  3. USING A JUMP ROPE — build your way up to what are called ‘double-unders’ where the rope passes under your feet two times for each jump. This builds terrific core stability, and learning the novel movement pattern strengthens brain function, too. 

Mastering the double-under will require a bit of practice, so, until you can perform multiple, successive double-unders, your workout should follow this pattern: 

  • Warm up for several minutes doing single-under jumps, with 25 attempts at the double-under. 
  • Then, for 2 minutes without stopping, do as many rounds as possible of 30 seconds of single-unders followed by 5 sit-ups, then pick one of the following and complete 5 reps: pull-ups, pushups, or dips. 
  • Rest for 2 minutes. Repeat this 3 to 5 times. 
  • Increase the workout window to 3 minutes when you are able.

Once you have mastered double-unders, change step #1 to: do as many rounds as possible of 25 double-unders.  

Strike a sane, safe balance.

Developing a HIIT routine is a wonderful way to amp up your fitness, metabolism and insulin sensitivity while also helping to reduce, body fat, blood pressure, and heart rate. There are so many body-loving benefits that come with the HIIT territory, I encourage all my patients to work it into their routines. If HIIT is something you’d like to try, always keep in mind that balance and allowing for adequate recovery time is essential with HIIT. Even though you may want to go in whole hog – and risk over-doing it – remember that your body needs time to rest, repair, gain strength and get stronger. In other words, no back-to-back HIIT sessions, spread them out. Try starting with one HIIT session every 7-to-10 days, using the days in between for recovery and more moderate-intensity workouts – and in time, your fitness will soar.

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