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Many of us cite lack of time as a prime reason not to exercise; others find exercise frustrating when results seem so far away. But what if there was an exercise program that could get you significantly fitter in as little as five minutes?

High Intensity Interval Training

For several years now, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) has been trumpeted as the final word in conditioning.  The takeover has been so complete and the condescension towards those who still practice traditional cardio is so strong from some of its acolytes that you could be forgiven for expecting a knock at your door from a young man in a tracksuit, asking if you’ve accepted Professor Tabata as your personal savior.
While Professor Tabata’s genuinely groundbreaking work has received the majority of the attention, some might be forgiven for suspecting that that’s partly because of the very high intensity it requires.

The vast majority of people doing HIIT aren't following Tabata protocol – if you are, you’re doing 4 4-minute sessions of very high intensity negative rest intervals a week and one longer, moderate intensity cardio session.

If you’re not doing this, you may be doing HIIT but you’re not doing Tabata protocol. 

Tabata protocol requires periods of 20 seconds’ work and 10 seconds’ rest, and should be so intense that it’s impossible to keep track of the intervals yourself: you need a coach to do it for you.

While that super-high intensity might appeal to the macho amongst us, perhaps it’s better to try a less punishing regimen if you want to get the benefits of HIIT without exhausting yourself.

Enter Professor Martin Gibala, of the kinesiology research department at McMaster University in Canada.  Professor Gibala has attempted to construct a simpler, more commonsense approach to HIIT than Professor Tabata’s highly structured and very intense method. His summation of the essence of HIIT says volumes about his attitude to the subject: ‘HIT simply involves alternating high- and low-intensity efforts,’ he explains.

Professor Gibala goes on to explain his own approach to HIIT in equally simple terms. ‘We have shown that interval training does not have to be ‘all out’ in order to be effective,’ he says. And he delineates the key benefit of HIIT as against traditional steady-state cardio, saying, ‘doing 10 one-minute sprints on a standard stationary bike with about one minute of rest in between, three times a week, works as well in improving muscle as many hours of conventional long-term biking less strenuously.’

While there are several complementary systems of interval training available, with more emerging all the time, what’s missing is a clear understanding of why this system works. Training at high intensity for short periods seems to have a ‘one-way carryover’– 

HIIT makes people better at steady state cardio, but steady state cardio doesn’t make people better at HIIT. 

As against Professor Tabata’s highly intense training regimen, which featured negative rest as a key component, Professor Gibala’s research featured an easier program to implement. Active but non-athletic men cycled against high resistance on a standard exercise bike for 30 seconds at high intensity, followed by four minutes’ ‘rest’ cycling at low intensity, and the routine was repeated four to six times, three days a week.  Within two weeks, the test subjects had doubled the amount of time they could cycle at a preset intensity, from 26 to 54 minutes.

An increase in aerobic capacity is known to be one of the side effects of anaerobic conditioning, though past a certain point this requires specific conditioning. 

However, the question this article poses isn't ‘can you improve your aerobic function in five minutes?’ but ‘can you get fitter in five minutes?’

Can High Intensity Interval Training Work For Me In As Little As Five Minutes?

The answer to that question depends on your definition of fitness. Rather than look through half a dozen dictionaries to see what ‘fitness’ technically means, why don’t we look at what we mean by it?

When you think of someone who’s unfit, you think of someone who gets out of breath easily, can’t carry heavy objects, doesn't look fit – they’re either really skinny, fat, or a bit of both – and can’t touch their toes. 

Someone who’s fit doesn't get out of breath easily, is stronger than the average, looks fit and is limber and doesn't get injured a lot; you’d also expect this person to be more energetic.

Clearly we mean a lot of things when we say fit: we mean aerobic endurance, anaerobic capacity, strength, mobility, and general vitality. 

The good news is that HIIT of any kind can improve all these factors! When Professor Gibala tested his research subjects, he found an improvement in aerobic capacity from six weeks’ training at only about 15 minutes a week that would usually be expected to take about 20 weeks of low-intensity cardio.

Other markers of fitness that have implications for our conception of fitness include blood counts for sugar and insulin. Very high sugar or insulin counts can be indicators of metabolic syndrome or the onset of diabetes. 

But Professor Gibala’s test subjects saw radical decreases on both counts – far more than would be expected from traditional training methods. Research into Professor Gibala’s methods at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh found that insulin blood count fell by as much as 37% - commenting on this, Professor Jamie Timmons, chair of aging biology at the University of Birmingham, UK, said, ‘typically, endurance training in this population would have a limited impact on glucose, only reduce insulin somewhat and usually not until after many weeks of training. HIT training addresses two of the major health benefits of exercise, insulin sensitivity and aerobic capacity, while simultaneously removing the time barrier to exercise.’

But what about muscle? Traditional cardio is often pilloried for reducing muscle mass, but HIIT can offer a way out of this age-old trade-off. Due to its recorded effects in increasing testosterone production and production of Human Growth Hormone, HIIT can offer the opportunity to get more muscular as well as healthier, all in very short sessions.

Professor Gibabla has addressed the issue that very intense exercise may actually be unsafe for totally detrained, sedentary individuals by rebuilding his programme into three weekly sessions, each of ten one-minute sprints with a minute’s rest in between. This adds up to an hour a week, not the few minutes that attracts many to the program – but it’s designed for people who do no other exercise, and the results have been impressive in trials, rivaling the more intense form of training.

So which of the methods on offer should you choose?

Professor Timmons states that ‘for those already doing sprint training and weights as part of their regime, HIT won't add that much. But if your training is all sub-maximal, then HIT could improve insulin sensitivity and promote muscle mass gain.’ If you are already using maximal strength or power training and sprints, you can use very short, intense sessions of HIIT to boost T, HGH and anaerobic capacity, while if you’re not very active HIIT can be a way in to exercise that cuts out the time restriction; any cardio exercise movement will do, though Professor Gibala’s research has centered around a standard exercise cycle.

So the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article is a qualified but definite ‘yes’ – you really can make serious improvements to your fitness in as little as five minutes!

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