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What if it was possible to get the same health benefits from just three minutes of exercise, compared with hours in the gym? While new research seems to show this might be possible, a British journalist claims it caused him to suffer a stroke.

Do you exercise as much as you think you should, or follow recommendations for weekly exercise to maintain health? The commonest reason given for not exercising regularly, is lack of time.  Who has time to go to the gym several times a week or spend hours walking, jogging or running?  But what if it was possible to get the same health benefits from just three minutes of exercise? 

An exercise regime known as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), used for years by athletes to improve performance, may offer the rest of us such a heaven-sent solution.

What’s involved in High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)?

The idea is to exercise at high intensity for very brief periods which are separated by rest, or low intensity exercise. The exercise should be aerobic and common examples are cycling on an exercise bike, running up and down stairs, or on the spot.

What are the benefits?

Researchers at the University of Bath in the UK found that HIIT improved glycaemic control 

i.e. it lowered blood glucose levels, which means it could be effective in preventing type 2 diabetes.

Published four years ago, the results of their study showed that in sedentary but healthy young men HIIT reduced glucose and insulin levels in the blood and increased insulin sensitivity by 23%. A lack of sensitivity of cells to insulin, leads to development and worsening, of type 2 diabetes. It means that sugar (glucose) cannot get into cells to be used as energy, but accumulates in the blood. This build-up of glucose can become toxic to tissues like the eyes and kidneys and leads to a build-up of fat around our organs.

Professor James Timmons of Nottingham University is one of the researchers in an ongoing European study of HIIT in middle-aged people. He said: ‘The science is developing on High-Intensity Interval training. Yes, it is really good at improving glucose uptake into the muscles in a very, very short time.’

Martin Gibala from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who has been researching HIIT for over a decade says:

‘A growing body of evidence demonstrates that HIIT can serve as an effective alternative to traditional endurance-based training, inducing similar or even superior physiological adaptations.’

HIIT may also help burn fat

Professor Timmons added: ‘With really intense exercise, you release hormones that can help break down fat. This may help burn that fat over time, after HIIT is done. Also, we think, but don’t know, that HIIT will subdue appetite, while traditional exercise (jogging etc) will stimulate appetite. This last point is key and will be researched by our team.’

The effect of HIIT on body fat was shown in a study of healthy overweight women.  After performing HIIT for 15 weeks,

the women lost more fat from their trunks and legs and reduced body mass, total body fat and insulin levels, compared with women who carried out traditional exercise for longer periods.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Babraj JA et al. Extremely short duration high intensity interval training substantially improves insulin action in young healthy males. BMC Endocrine Disorders 2009,9,3
  • Trapp EG et al.The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008, 32(4),684-91
  • Photo courtesy of lululemonathletica by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/lululemonathletica/3446284512/
  • Photo courtesy of JBLM PAO by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/jblmpao/6307471914/

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