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High-Intensity Interval Training: Everything You Need To Know

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Is the fitness craze that promises to eliminate your biggest barrier to fitness, a lack of time, too good to be true or does it really deliver?

Among the many recurring questions I get asked as a fitness professional, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) comes up a lot. The conversation usually begins with my client jokingly asking me "Do I really have to do it?"

HIIT, which consists of small bursts of all-out, maximal and vigorous activity followed by short periods of rest, has been used by athletes since the beginning of the 20th century . Yet these quick workouts, ranging from four minutes to 10 minutes in length, only recently gained popularity among the mainstream population as they promised to greatly reduce the amount of time taken to get fit.

So, does this form of training really maximize your use of time? Does it work? And is it better for you than other forms of fitness? Here are the answers to the most common questions asked about HIIT.

Does HIIT really take as little as four minutes to complete?

HIIT does take significantly less time to complete than a standard moderate physical activity routine, but the time commitment's not as low as you may initially believe.

In order to push your body to a high-intensity fitness level that HIIT requires, you must do a good warm up, and that takes more time.

You're warm up gets your body ready for activity, not only by increasing blood flow and getting your muscles and joints prepared for strenuous work, but also by preparing the neurological system (otherwise known as the mind to muscle connection) which ensures safe movements and reduces your risk of injury. Instead of a five-minute warm up, do 10. Of course, you can't forget to add your five-minute cool down at the end of your routine, too.

This makes your HIIT routine 19 minutes long instead of the four minutes some HIIT protocols promise.

While you're still saving precious minutes in comparison to a moderate physical activity program it's not quite as low as you initially believed.

Is HIIT better for your health than other forms of fitness?

When it comes to overall health, HIIT isn't any better at creating your best health than other forms of fitness. It's simply the same. That is, most studies show this method of training elicits the same health benefits as moderate continuous exercise, just in a shorter time period.

HIIT is a great alternative to moderate continuous exercise, but it's not your only option. If you can't motivate yourself to train at your maximal exertion capacities, then don't do it. Choose moderate intensity exercise instead.

The effort that continuous, moderate exercise places on your heart and muscles is still sufficient to create healthy changes. However, it is important to understand you're trading time for intensity. That is, if you want to train at a lower level you'll have to make your workout longer in order to see similar results. The World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week over the much-reduced 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity that HIIT would fall under, and that's just to gain health benefits associated with a reduction in heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even some forms of cancer. No weight loss involved.

Can HIIT burn more belly fat than moderate-intensity activity?

As a fitness expert I am always reluctant to back gimmicky claims that promise to "burn belly fat,", but in the case of HIIT, I can't deny the science. Some studies do show a modest link between a reduction in belly fat and HIIT.

The exact reason is unclear. It's thought that the greater level of hormones released during HIIT enhance fat oxidation (fat burning) and increase the number of fat burning receptors located in the tummy. As well, some evidence suggests HIIT suppresses the appetite. This further helps with fat loss for the obvious reason that you eat less.

While I strongly believe there are no quick fixes when it comes to your weight-loss journey, if you've been consistently working hard and your fitness level is ready for HIIT (you can check with your doctor if you're unsure), you could definitely include it for an added weight-loss advantage along with your healthy nutrition plan.

Is HIIT the only form of fitness I should do?

The only form of fitness you should do is the type of fitness you will adhere to.

HIIT does maximize your use of time and may bring you a creative and inspirational form of movement that compels you to stay consistent throughout the years. On the other hand, it also requires a lot of internal motivation. Will you feel excited to do HIIT each day? Or will you feel too fatigued, too sore or too under-motivated to make yourself do it?

If moderate or even low-intensity exercise is something you know you can maintain for the rest of your life, then adherence overrules intermittent exercise every single time.

If you've decided that you'd like to give HIIT a chance but you can't bring yourself to do it for every single workout, then substitute one or two HIIT sessions on busier days when you find it difficult to do your longer routine. There are still benefits to doing it this way. For example, incorporating a HIIT protocol into a moderate-intensity running program has been shown to increase speed when performing a continuous run.

So, does HIIT work, and should you do it?

HIIT does work. It maximizes your use of time while achieving results similar to longer bouts of moderate physical activity (and may be even better in some cases). So, if you're up for the challenge, add it to your workout routine. Just remember, you don't have to do it in order to get fit.

If you can't stand the idea of pushing yourself to your limits, find something else. Your workout program should motivate you, inspire you and give you lasting health benefits you can feel proud of. After all, it's not the type of exercise you do that matters. It's consistency that creates lasting results.

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