You can shorten your workouts and get similar health benefits with interval training.

April 11, 2012

Women working out for good health

Many of us want to get in better shape. The problem is that we may not have the time to exercise. With our jobs, families, and other activities, squeezing in a workout is hard.

You cannot add hours to your day so you can exercise. But there is some good news. You may be able to shorten your workout – and still get great health benefits. According to mayoclinic.com, recent studies have discovered surprising benefits about interval training. This type of training could change the way you stay in shape.

What is interval training?

Interval training is switching between intense activity and lighter activity in one workout. For example, let's just say you like to get your exercise by walking. If you're in good shape, you could add short bursts of jogging to your walks. If you're less fit, you might walk slowly for a while. Then, you could add short periods of faster walking.

Maybe you like to walk outside in your neighborhood. You could walk faster between certain mailboxes, trees, or other landmarks. Then, you'd slow down for other areas.

In the past, interval training was only for top athletes. But now, interval training is a great tool for regular people, too. According to mayoclinic.com, interval training offers a range of healthy benefits, including:

  • You burn more calories.
    The harder you exercise, the more calories you'll burn. This is true even if you work harder for just a few minutes at a time.
  • You'll improve your aerobic capacity.
    Aerobic capacity is the maximum amount of oxygen your body uses when you exercise. As your fitness improves, your aerobic capacity increases. That means you'll be able to exercise longer or stronger. You could finish a 60-minute walk in 45 minutes.
  • You won't get bored.
    Increasing your intensity in short intervals can add variety to your workouts.
  • You do not need special equipment.
    You can get more health benefits from your current exercise.

Interval training in action

MSNBC.com offers some interval training success stories. One is that of Moira Jrolf who switched to interval training. Since she changed, Jrolf said she spends less time exercising, and gets better results.

She used to exercise with long periods of physical activity. For example, she used to take one-hour runs. Or she would swim laps for an hour-and-a-half. She has added interval training to her exercise plan.

She now does sprints at the track or in the pool. She takes rest periods in between her sprints. "It definitely is good to mix it up. You feel like you're really pushing your limits with the interval workouts," Jrolf said. Jrolf has four young children and is a busy mother.

"On the days I do my interval training, the workout is shorter. So I put in less actual time working out," she said.

When going full speed ahead, you just can't sustain the activity for as long. And interval training saves time. "I save about 20 to 30 minutes per workout," Jrolf said. She no longer does lap swimming for an hour-and-a-half. Instead, she takes an hour-long interval-based swim class. She also uses interval training when she runs. She does sprints for 30 or 40 minutes one day each week. The sprints replace one of her slower, hour-long runs.

The approach has paid off. Since Jrolf started interval training, she said she's more toned, faster, and less bored while exercising. Interval training helped her complete her first marathon.

Interval training is becoming more popular.

Fitness professionals say interval training is gaining popularity, especially with people who are not athletes. They are tired of their usual, boring workouts and looking for ways to save time.

Interval training has caused some fitness instructors to change the way they think about exercise. Now, if you feel guilty when you stop in the middle of a workout, don't. Taking a series of breaks while working out may help you get better results. But you must work really hard in between those breaks.

Less time, greater intensity

Martin Gibala is a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He studies short-burst interval training. His studies show that interval training produces many of the same results as traditional exercise.

But Gibala said more research is needed. He wants to see if short-burst training produces all of the same health results. He is also interested if there are added problems with interval training.

Just because the exercise takes less time doesn't always mean it feels better. "It's nice to talk about getting away with very little exercise. But those short bursts hurt," Gibala said.

Jay Blahnik is a personal trainer in Laguna Beach, Calif. He is also an MSNBC.com fitness contributor. He has worked with interval training.

"It can produce results. And maybe even reduce stress more than traditional, steady-state exercise does," Blahnik said.

But Blahnik says high-intensity interval training may not be for everyone. People who are overweight or have other health issues should be careful.

Talk to your doctor

Interval training is not a good idea for everyone. If you have a health condition or haven't been exercising regularly, talk to your doctor. You should do this before trying any type of interval training.

Also keep the chance of injury due to overuse in mind. Do not rush into a really hard workout before your body is ready. You may hurt your muscles or bones. Instead, start slowly.

Try just one or two higher intensity intervals during each workout at first. If you think you're overdoing it, slow down. As your stamina improves, challenge yourself to change your pace. You may be surprised by the results.

Dr. William Kraus is a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center. He advises that you start a program with a moderate intensity activity.

For example, take a brisk walk. This activity offers very little risk. But starting a program with a lot of activity might be dangerous. You could suffer a range of physical injuries or even a heart attack.

You should check with your doctor before starting any new physical activity program. One way to begin short-burst training is to speed up a bit on the treadmill. Get out of your comfort zone for a minute. Then, slow down or stop for a minute. After your break, do another short burst. Repeat for a total of 10 intervals. As your fitness level improves, you can challenge yourself more.

Short-burst training can be tough. But MSNBC.com reports that people like Michael Melvin like the challenge. Melvin used to spend most of his gym time on strength-training machines. But he was overweight and needed a change.

So he started taking a boot camp-style class. There he spent the same amount of time working out as before. He exercised four or five days a week. But the classes helped him get more muscular and lose weight. He lost 50 pounds in one year. The class uses intervals of various activities, including sprints and other exercises.

"I've noticed dramatic results in a lot less time," Melvin said. He looked more closely at what he eats. A key factor to his fitness success is that he doesn't get bored. He used to get bored with his traditional endurance activity.

"Running on a treadmill, it's just not for me," he said.

Does interval training work the same for everyone?

The short answer is yes. But you can take interval training to many levels. You may want to simply vary your exercise routine. If that is your goal, you need to decide on how long you want to exercise. Then decide on how fast you want to do each exercise. You can change based on how you feel on a specific day.

After warming up, you can increase the intensity for 30 seconds. Then resume your normal pace. The next burst of more intense activity may last two to three minutes. Then you decide how much you pick up the pace. Also you decide how often and for how long you exercise.

If you're working toward a specific fitness goal, you can take a different approach. A personal trainer can help you time the intensity and duration of your intervals. Your intervals can be based on your target heart rate or other factors. This type of interval training also adds variety to your workout. But, it also requires more discipline and concentration.

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