Imagine for a moment you can get fit, toned and lose weight by doing as little as three minutes exercise a week. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Yet latest research, by scientists at Loughborough University, shows that short bursts of high intensity exercise can be just as beneficial for health as spending hours doing conventional exercise.
"Current government guidelines recommend that we exercise at moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes a week," says Professor Jamie Timmons, Professor of Systems Biology, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.
"It works out at 20 minutes a day, or at 30 minutes, five times a week. But, in reality, most people don’t do this. Only five per cent of us do the recommended amount of exercise. ‘For the rest, the most common excuse for not exercising is lack of time. There are also people who simply don’t want to spend hours jogging, running or working out."
So, what are the options if you want to improve your fitness levels but are too busy or unmotivated to exercise? If this sounds like you, then HIT (high intensity training) might be worth a try.
Exercise just got simple
Basically, HIT is a quicker, simpler version of interval training – where you do a number of short bursts of intense exercise with short recovery breaks in-between. With HIT 80 per cent of the body’s muscles are activated, compared with 20–40 per cent when exercising moderately.
Professor Timmons has even devised a very simple HIT formula.
"All you have to do is exercise three times a week for three bursts of 20 seconds, with a two-minute break in-between each 20-second burst. The only piece of exercise equipment you need is a stationary exercise bike. Or use a regular cycle or rowing machine. High impact activities, e.g. running, walking, jogging or jumping, are not recommended as they put too much stress on the muscles."
Anyone can do HIT: "It doesn’t matter if you’re overweight or completely unfit," says Professor Timmons. "HIT is totally self-limiting; 20 seconds is very short, with no danger of overdoing it. There is no need to measure your heart rate. You do your maximum effort for 20 seconds. This will vary from person to person. You can expect to see improvements in about 4 weeks."
But is it natural to exercise so sporadically? "You only have to look at animals in the wild," says Professor Timmons. "They spend most of their time sitting around and only break into action for very short periods at a time to catch their dinner. I think it’s the same with people. We’re not genetically programmed to be on the go all the time."
The health benefits
Professor Timmons and his team of researchers have conducted 10 clinical studies looking at the health benefits of HIT. These have shown HIT can improve aerobic fitness, tone muscles, speed up metabolism and reduce diabetes risk factors. One study showed insulin sensitivity was improved by 24 per cent.
"Maximal intense exercise enables the body to handle blood glucose more efficiently after eating – and, this may help people to avoid Type 2 diabetes," says Professor Timmons. "The findings are very clear. We can now state that to improve aerobic fitness you do not need to do 150 minutes of jogging a week. Three minutes of HIT can also do it."
There will be further studies later in the year. Professor Timmons also hopes that employers recognise the potential health benefits of HIT. "In my opinion," he says, "anyone who employs large numbers of people should install an exercise bike on the premises. This is a simple way to keep healthy and fit. You don’t need much time, or to change and shower. Yet, the benefits in terms of employee health and wellbeing are immense."
All you have to do is use a standard exercise bike. You’ll find these at all reputable gyms. Or, if you think the benefits are worth it, consider investing in one that you can use at home. You can also use a rowing machine or regular bicycle.
- First warm up with some gentle pedalling
- Cycle as fast as you can for 20 seconds
- Rest or pedal gently for two minutes, while you catch your breath
- Cycle flat out for 20 seconds
- Rest or pedal gently for two minutes
- Cycle at maximum capacity for 20 seconds
- Rest or pedal gently for two minutes
Repeat this HIT workout three times a week for a minimum of four to 12 weeks.
Sprint interval training
SIT (sprint interval training) is another short duration, high-intensity workout regime that has been devised by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Birmingham. Researchers claim three weekly sessions (90 minutes in total) improves cardiovascular health and reduces diabetes risks, being as effective as 5 sessions of traditional endurance exercise (taking five hours a week).
All you have to do is three sessions a week of six rounds of 30 second bursts of exercise – sprinting or cycling as fast as possible – interspersed with four and a half minutes of low intensity exercise.
- Warm up
- Sprint or cycle at maximum capacity (high intensity) for 30 seconds
- Sprint or cycle at low intensity for four and a half minutes
Repeat each high and low intensity about six times each. Do this workout three times a week. Continue for four to 12 weeks.
"High intensity workouts can help to get you fit, but there is also a high risk of developing musculoskeletal problems," says Professor Nicola Maffulli, Professor of Sport and Exercise Medicine and Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Centre for Sports and Exercise Medicine and Dentistry at Barts and The London, Queen Mary’s School of Medicine.
"You’re also more likely to sustain an acute injury, for example, a tear of muscles, tendons or ligaments," she says.
"Or an overuse injury, from prolonged exertion. This is more of a risk if the exercise involves running, hopping or jumping. So these are things to consider, especially if you are unfit or elderly."
N.B. Sustained and unsupervised exercise may cause a problem and if you’ve not been exercising regularly, or have a known medical condition including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, joint or musculoskeletal problems, you should consult your GP before embarking on a course of vigorous exercise or a new exercise regime.