You’ve been meaning to go to the gym for a few weeks now, but something keeps getting in your way: a work deadline you can’t miss, your grandson’s recital, catching up with a loved one, or just plain fatigue. We all know how hard it is to stay motivated to go to the gym.
What if there was a way to get all the benefits of hours of gym-time, without leaving your house? What if you could get all the heart-healthy and body-slimming effects of cardio and weight-lifting in just minutes a day?
Well, there is: it’s HIIT and it gives you all the physical, mental and emotional benefits of exercise, but much more quickly than going out for a run.
Of course, HIIT is not a magic bullet – you do have to exercise, but only 10 or 20 minutes a day. Using the things you already have lying around your home, you can transform your life by taking a few moments in your day to care for yourself.
What is HIIT?
HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval (or intermittent) Training. HIIT has been around for almost a century and was initially developed for elite athletes,1 but now the rest of us get to reap the same benefits.
Let’s break it down into its components:
High Intensity- that means you’ve got to put in an effort. This can be anywhere from 20 to 60 seconds at a time. You can do this! And you will be greatly rewarded for your effort. High intensity comes with the natural high of endorphins pumping through your body2 to motivate you to keep going.
Interval (or Intermittent) – you don’t exercise non-stop! After your 20 to 60 seconds of intense exercise, you get a rest period where you get to catch your breath. You can either stop exercising completely or do very light exercise; it is up to you! In HIIT workouts, you switch back and forth between high intensity and rest periods.
Training – that’s the exercise. Exercise has so many benefits: weight loss, heart and lung health, clearer thinking, better mood… the list is endless. Not to mention, the confidence and energy to live your life to your fullest!
What Can You Get from Doing HIIT?
The secret to HIIT is that the short burst of high energy increase how well we use oxygen.3 When we use oxygen well, we are increasing our metabolism, lose weight and strengthen our heart.
But there are even more HIIT benefits.
HIIT improves our cardiorespiratory (heart and breathing) function more than traditional exercise. We’ve always been told that all exercise is good for us, but the truth is that some exercises are better than others.
While most Americans struggle to get enough exercise, the truth is we need to exercise smarter, not longer!
HIIT can decrease the bad effects of a poor food decision? Normally after we eat high fat, high salt food, our blood vessels get sluggish. This is the “brain fog” that comes after eating a traditional holiday meal. A study showed that people who did HIIT before eating a fatty fast food meal had less damage to their blood vessels.4
You can think of damaged blood vessels like a traffic jam on the highway. Our heart, brain, and other important organs don’t get as much blood as they need because the fatty food sends a signal that constricts our blood vessels.
Doing HIIT hours before eating fast food decreases this signal!. Of course, eating fatty salty and inflammatory food isn’t great, but if you do indulge, doing HIIT could well save your heart and brain from being starved of vital blood!
Who can do HIIT?
Almost everyone. Despite what you may have heard, you don’t have to be an Olympian to start doing HIIT. In fact, one study looked at men and women, most were older than 70 and more than a third were over 80 years old! Even more impressive, all of these folks had heart failure, meaning that they had weak hearts from having a heart attack. If they can do it, you can too.
Those elderly people with weak hearts who did HIIT 3 times a week for 3 months literally change their hearts. Their hearts pumped better and their blood vessels opened up more than people that did a traditional workout.
Why do I say almost everyone? Of course, if you have concerns about your health, you should not start any new exercise program, including HIIT. Always talk to your doctor or another healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program, especially if you have not been physically active for a long time.
How long do I have to exercise?
People got better when they went all out for only 30 seconds to one minute. Then they did light activity to catch their breath and repeated the cycle for ten or twenty minutes. That means you are doing high intensity exercise for less than ten minutes a day. You’ve got this!
There is absolutely no need to go to the gym or even buy workout clothes. You can stay in the comfort of your own home, wear whatever you like and watch your favorite TV show. HIIT is a great partner exercise, so get your spouse, kids or anyone else involved.
Every Single Day?
Not necessarily. In one study, participants who did HITT only twice a week over 3 months improved their health and blood vessel function.5 In another, people exercised 3 days a week.6 This means that HIIT can easily fit your schedule and you won’t feel as though you are chained to an exercise routine; you can be flexible.
HIIT should be fun, and over time, you may even find yourself looking forward to seeing how much stronger you have become! The spill over to the rest of your life will also keep you motivated; you’ll see that you are more easily able to keep up with you grandchildren or go for a hike in nature.
What kind of exercises should I do?
HIIT is high intensity, meaning, you’ve got to get your heart pumping. In many of the studies, participants were on cycle ergometers (stationary bicycles) or running.5 That’s great, but you’re probably asking, what do I do if I don’t have gym equipment or a track in my living room?
There are many bodyweight exercises you can try. March in place or do high knees, jumping jacks, star jumps or burpees. You don’t need to buy weights; use heavy items around the house- a gallon of milk, a ten-pound bag of rice. Get creative!
Don’t be intimidated! There are many “beginner” variations and lots of modifications. For example, search “low impact” exercises if you have knee pain. It’s also a good idea to mix different exercises so you don’t get bored.
How do I Tell if I am Working Hard Enough?
HIIT should be at your fitness level. That means whatever gets your heart pumping or leaves you feeling breathless. If it is hard to complete a full sentence aloud, you are doing it right.
Your goal is to reach 90% of your exercise capacity, but you can work your way up to this! When you do this, you get as much benefit as a person taking blood pressure medicine,6 without any of the side effects!
The best way to figure out your target HIIT level is to see an exercise physiologist. Since most people can’t do that, so here are other options:
- Use Metabolic Equivalent Tools (MET). If you go to a gym and get on a treadmill, use the MET calculator. Aim for 7-9 METs and check your heart rate. Also tune in to how you feel: are you breathless? Does your heart feel as though its going a mile a minute? Try to recreate the feeling when you do HIIT at home.
- Calculate your maximum heart rate. For most people older than 20 something, your maximum heart rate is 207 minus 70% of your age. If you are a woman over 35 use this one: 206 minus 88% of your age. Your goal should be about 90% of your maximum heart rate.
These methods are not completely accurate, but they are good enough for our purposes.
Heart rate monitors are a handy tool, but they are not necessary. Simply measure your heart rate for 15 seconds (then multiply by 4) to get your heart rate. Try checking your heart rate during your rest period, right after the high-intensity interval.
Whatever you do, you should be sweating and breathing hard after you finish your workout. If you feel like you could easily do more exercise, you are not working hard enough!
So, what are you waiting for? Let’s HIIT it. Try it; all you’ll need is a timer.
BONUS HIIT WORKOUT
If you want to start trying HIIT for exercise, here is a bonus HIIT workout that can get you started on the right track.
March in place for 1 minute.
Each exercise last 40 seconds; march in place for 20 seconds in between each exercise.
Squat jump ups: Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart. Squat down, lifting your arms in front of you for balance. Try to get your thighs parallel to the floor and keep your knees over your feet. Immediately jump up while raising your arms over your head. For beginners: stand up instead of jumping, but still lift your arms overhead. Repeat.
Push-up and tuck jump: Get into the push up (plank) position with your arms straight and body in a straight line. Beginners can do push-ups on an incline using a table, counter or even the wall. Do a push-up, keeping shoulders above elbows. As you straighten your arms, jump your feet towards your hands so you are in a low squat, then jump back. Beginners can step one foot at a time towards the hands then step back. Repeat.
Seated dips with kick: Sit on the edge of a chair or couch. Place your hands on either side of you. Push off the chair, keeping your knees bent so that you are in a sitting position with your arms holding you up. Lift your left leg off the floor. Dip down so your upper arms are parallel with the ground; bend the right knee even more. Straighten your arms to come back up. Repeat with alternate leg lifted. Beginners, keep both legs on the ground.
Lunge Kick, Curtsy Side Kick: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hands on hips. Step back with your left leg into a lunge; try to make the right thigh parallel to the ground. With as much power as you have, bring your left leg up and extend it to kick out in front of you. As you bring your leg down, step it behind the right leg while bending the right knee so you are in a “curtsy.” From here, kick your left leg out to your left side. Switch and do the same with the right leg. If needed, place your hand on a chair or wall for support.
Side Lunge: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Squat down, trying to get your thighs parallel to the ground, and bend forward, placing your right hand on the ground Beginner, squat as low as you can, but place your right hand on a couch or table instead. Extend your left leg out to your side. With as much power as you have, jump your left leg into the middle, while extending your right leg out to your side. Place your left hand on the ground (or couch) for support. Beginners can step the legs out instead of jumping. Try to keep your back straight.
Repeat 2 or 3 times.
March in place for 1 minute.
Mountain pose to forward fold. Stand up straight. Inhale and lift your arms straight overhead. While exhaling, bend at the waist, placing your hand on your knees, shins or the ground. Take 5 full breaths, then stand up tall with arms resting at your side. Repeat 3 times.
Deep forward fold with twist. Stand with your legs about 3 feet apart. Fold forward at your waist to touch the ground. Beginners: bend forward, placing your hands on a table or couch. Stay for 5 breaths. Next, lift your right arm towards the ceiling while twisting to the right. 5 breaths. Repeat on the left side for 5 breaths. Slowly come back to standing.
Calf stretch against the wall: Stand facing the wall. Extend your arms and step away from the wall. Place your foot against the wall with toes facing upwards. Bend your arms so you are leaning against the wall. You should feel a good calf stretch. Stay for 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Great job! You should be sweating and feeling out of breath. That means you are working hard!