Many of us have been following the example of Jennifer, Madonna and Gwyneth, sweating it out for hours in the gym, but Peta Bee says it takes just a matter of minutes each day to make a difference to your weight and shape.
IN THE 20 years I have been writing about fitness, I have witnessed every conceivable workout drift in and out of popularity. Until now, there has been one constant, one underlying principle of the fitness industry that was never doubted: the more time you exercised, the better.
Only people who dedicated themselves to lengthy workouts could expect their body fat to plummet, their muscles to become exquisitely defined.
Tracey Anderson, trainer to actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez, said she expects devotees of her method to exercise for 90 minutes a day.
Madonna set the benchmark higher, reportedly exercising for two hours a day with her trainer. If you wanted an athletic-looking body, then you needed to make an Olympian effort.
That was until the discovery of HIT, or high-intensity training, the concept that exercise need only last a fraction of the traditional time.
In recent years, countless studies by sports scientists have spurned the biggest workout trend of the last two decades.
Now, wherever you work-out, even the most diligent exercisers are asking not how much they should do, but how little exercise they can get away with.
There is a growing realisation — among coaches, personal trainers, gym owners, and anyone with a hint of an interest in fitness — that you can make huge differences to your weight and health in minutes per day. It was the scientific proof that it works that led BBC Horizon TV presenter, Dr Michael Mosley, and myself to write the book, Fast Exercise.
Two years ago, while filming an episode, Dr Mosley — a self-confessed sloth — had been concerned that his risk of diabetes was elevated due to a genetic vulnerability. Tests showed that, despite being relatively slim, his blood-glucose levels were borderline diabetic.
He began fasting two days a week (the principle behind the bestselling book, Fast Diet, which he wrote last year), but was also prescribed a HIT workout by Professor Jamie Timmons, now a researcher at Loughborough University.
This simple regime required Dr Mosley to perform 2 x 20-second flat-out sprints, with plenty of recovery, on an indoor bike three times a week. He was sceptical, but within weeks his weight had dropped, his fitness had improved, and his blood glucose levels were more favourable.
Dr Mosley was convinced that it worked, especially when he stopped HIT for a brief period, in 2012, and his blood glucose levels deteriorated back to their original, risky point.
The scientific evidence is compelling. Scientists have long known that pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, albeit for short periods, is key to fitness progression. Your body expends more calories powering along than it does ambling.
Back in 2005, studies at McMaster University, in Ontario, showed that 30-second bike sprints, for two minutes, led to the same muscle-cell adaptations as two hours of long, steady bike riding. Since then, dozens of research papers have concluded that a few minutes of strenuous activity are sufficient to improve various measures of fitness.
To date, most studies on short, high-intensity exercise have been small and carried out predominantly on young men.
However, Dr John Babraj, from the University of Abertay’s School of Social and Health Sciences, and author of The High Intensity Workout, has recently completed a paper on the effects of two of the 60-second workouts on a group of middle-aged people.
His results showed that, on average, people lost 1kg of fat over the two-month trial, even though the subjects were asked not to change their usual diet or activity habits.
Measures of blood-sugar control showed improvements almost matching those of younger people doing more of the same exercise, and the middle-aged subjects also had significantly better cardiovascular function, an important marker of heart disease, after eight weeks.
“This opens up the possibility of one-minute exercise sessions having real importance in older people’s lives,” Babraj says.
Unlike Dr Mosley, I am a lifelong exerciser. But my own fitness levels and enthusiasm for working out have also been transformed by HIT.
My induction to HIT started when I took up athletics at primary school — several times a week, I would sprint-jog my way around a track, a practice I have kept up with varying degrees of effort over the years.
Now, at 45, and a busy working mum, I no longer have the hours a day to dedicate to workouts that I did in my 20s and 30s.
Yes, I want to offset middle-age weight gain and look as good as I can. And I want a body that performs well. But I want it fast.
That is the greatest appeal of HIT to me. It works, in barely the time it takes to get changed into your gym clothes and lace up your trainers.
* Fast Exercise, by Dr Michael Mosley with Peta Bee, Short Books, €11.50.
Just skip the gym
You don’t need to join a gym to get fit. Indeed all of our Fast Fitness and Fast Strength workouts can be done at home or outdoors. There is also a selection of workout times to choose from. Most HIT studies have been done on indoor cycling — Michael’s favourite form of Fast Exercise, (although he’s also partial to stair running).
I prefer running, but the indoor rower and cross trainer, swimming, skipping or walking are all suitable. How long you spend working out is up to you, but choose from the selection of workouts below to get started.
The bare minimum:
Michael’s favourite. Here’s how he does it:
1. Put the kettle on. Get on the exercise bike or rower and do a couple of minutes of gentle exercise to get going.
2. After about two minutes start pedalling fast, cranking up the resistance to a level high enough to cause your thighs to burn after about 15 seconds of a 20 second ‘sprint’.
3. Pedal at a gentle pace for a few more minutes.
4. Repeat the 20 second ‘sprint’
5. Relax! It’s over. Finish with a couple of minutes gentle cycling.
You don’t need to wear sports gear to do HIT — you can do it in a suit. Find a staircase. Bound up the stairs and walk down. Repeat as many times as you can in three minutes. As you get fitter, work up to five minutes of stair bounding.
From studies at Birmingham and Liverpool’s John Moore Universities, exercise scientists showed that three weekly sessions of two-minute workouts produced similar improvements to five weekly sessions of 40-60 minutes of traditional, steady paced activity.
To do this session, just perform four flat-out 30-second sprints on indoor /outdoor bikes or while running or rowing, interspersed with 4.5 minutes recovery. That’s it.
This is a bit different because you do it in one go. Norwegian researchers found that a single four-minute burst at a hard pace, three times a week, was enough to boost the health and fitness of previously sedentary middle aged men significantly. At the end of their 10-week trial the men had improved their aerobic capacity by 10% or more, lost a couple of pounds of fat, lowered their blood pressure and had better blood sugar control.
Warm up, skip as fast as you can for 60 seconds, rest for two minutes and repeat twice more. Cool down.
80-second power walk:
Walk or jog for three minutes at a moderate pace. Then ‘sprint’ for 20 seconds (at a speed that makes your thighs burn after 15 seconds). Revert to moderate pace for 2 minutes and repeat three times. Cool down.
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