Health & Fitness

It's a HIIT, High-Intensity Interval Training
by Nicole Vulcan

Most days, my friend G and I would stroll to the top of the nearest high hill, a breath of fresh air and some lively conversation ensuing.

This time, however, there was no lively conversation. We were breathing way too hard for all of that.

G, who’s close to 10 years my senior, and I had both kind of peaked in our workout routines. This nightly stroll to the top of the big hill was lovely, but if we wanted to continue improving our fitness, we knew we needed to up our games.

One effective—and time-saving—way to do that is through interval training. The website describes high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, as “short bursts of high-intensity activity performed at maximal effort (90 percent VO2 max), separated by short periods of low-intensity work that allow partial recovery.”

This type of intense training offers the big benefit of spending less overall time married to your workouts, but there’s another benefit to HIIT. As the American College of Sports Medicine puts it, it’s about EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. In a standard bout of exercise, you’ll use extra oxygen—and burn added calories—for about two hours after your workout. With a HIIT workout, however, “the EPOC generally tends to be modestly greater, adding about 6% to 15% more calories to the overall workout energy expenditure,” says the ACSM.

What’s more, sprint-type training—along with strength training—can stimulate a growth hormone response—the closest thing we have to an actual fountain of youth.

And that’s what led us to all this huffing and puffing and lack of conversation as we headed up our big hill. HIIT workouts can take nearly any form; another of their beautiful benefits. On this day, we used the hill and a gnarly set of stairs as the site for the majority of our workout, but you can easily do HIIT with nearly any physical activity. Just mix it up between a high-intensity portion and a lower-intensity, recovery portion. Walk and then sprint, for example, or jump rope rapidly and then walk or jump slowly. Do fast and then slow sprints on a bicycle, a kayak or a paddle board. Do a 10-second interval or a minute-long interval. Do two rounds of intervals or 10. Anything goes, really.

For us, the stairs, about eight flights worth of them with longish landings in between, made an ideal site for this varied type of workout. We’d jog (intensely) up the stair parts and then walk slowly to the next flight of stairs to start again. This broke down to about 10 seconds of “on” during the jog, and about 10 to 15 seconds of recovery—not a bad ratio. Generally, aim for a 1-to-1, or 1-to-2 hard-to-easy ratio. For those less experienced to HIIT, you can easily double or quadruple that recovery time and still get a beneficial workout, even after only a few rounds.

Our first time doing HIIT, we aimed to do two sets of eight flights of stairs. We tapped out after the first set—and slept like babies that night. That must have been the growth hormone kicking in…

The next time we did the HIIT workout, about four days later, we managed two sets. Just like that, we were at the next level of fitness and able to double our workout. At the same time, that put us at doing 16 rounds of fast and slow intervals—really, plenty for anyone looking to get the benefits of HIIT. And we really slept like babies after that.

Yes, these workouts are hard. But on the positive side: You don’t have to do them more than once or twice a week, and did I mention they’re done quickly? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends starting with one a week and then working up a second HIIT workout spread throughout the week. Research from the University of New Mexico, meanwhile, indicates that three days a week achieves optimal results—though also notes that endurance exercise is still beneficial as well.

For G and me, one or two HIIT workouts a week were more than enough. After all, we are still in it, in large part, for those long, heartfelt conversations, and the gorgeous views from the top of the hill.

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