For some of us, the most important question about getting active is just how little exercise can you get away with? The answer, according to a complex new study of interval training, may be quite a little. In a series of new experiments, 60 seconds of hard core exertion proved to be as successful at improving health and fitness levels as 45 minutes of moderate exercise.
Athletes rely on interval training to improve their speed and power, but generally as part of a broader, weekly training program that also includes extended, less-intense workouts, such as long runs or bicycling.
However in the past couple of years, scientists and many sportspeople have become interested in the idea of exercising exclusively with intervals, ditching long workouts altogether.
The attraction of this approach is obvious to all. Interval exercise duration can be short, making this form of exercise a positive gift for anyone who feels that they never have enough time to exercise.
Prior to this study most studies of interval training have had limitations, such as not including a control group, being of short duration or studying only health or fitness results, not a combination of both.
For this reason fundamental and important questions have remained unanswered about just how well these short, very intense workouts really compare to traditional, endurance type training.
This led scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, (who had themselves conducted many of those earlier studies of interval training), to conduct what has been recognized as the most scientifically rigorous comparison to date of super short and standard exercise programs.
They recruited 25 out-of-shape men and measuring their aerobic fitness levels and as a marker of their general health their body’s ability to use insulin properly to keep blood sugar levels regular. The scientists also biopsied the men’s muscles to examine functioning at a cellular level.
The researchers then randomly divided the men into 3 groups. One group was asked to change nothing about their current, low levels of exercise – these would then be the controls.
A second group began a typical endurance workout exercise regime, consisting of riding at a moderate pace on a stationary bike in the lab for forty five minutes, with a 2-minute warm-up and 3-minute cool down time.
The last group was tasked with interval training, using the most abbreviated workout proven to have verifiable benefits. The volunteers warmed up for 2 minutes on stationary bikes, then pedalled as hard as possible for twenty seconds; rode at a very slow pace for 2 minutes, sprinted all-out again for twenty seconds; then recovered with slow riding for another 2 minutes; pedalled all out for a last twenty seconds; then cooled down for 3 minutes. The entire workout lasted ten minutes, with only 1 minute of that time being strenuous.
Both groups completed three sessions each week for twelve weeks, a period of time that is about 2x as long as in most past studies of interval training.
By the end of the study which was published in PLOS One, the endurance group had ridden for 27 hours, while the interval group had ridden for six hours, with only 36 minutes of that time being high energy exercise.
However, when the scientists retested aerobic fitness, muscles and blood sugar control, they found that the exercisers showed almost identical gains, whether they had completed the long endurance workouts or the short, more stressful interval routine. In both groups of subjects, endurance had increased by nearly twenty percent, insulin resistance had likewise improved significantly. There were also significant increases in the number and function of certain microscopic structures in the men’s muscles which were related to energy production and oxygen use.
The control group showed no changes in health or fitness.
The result indicates that three months of concerted endurance or interval exercise can almost identically improve someone’s fitness and health.
Is that enough reason for folk who currently exercise moderately or not at all to begin interval training as their only workout choice?
Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University says:
it depends on who you are and why you exercise
If you are an elite athlete, then obviously incorporating both endurance and interval training into an overall program maximizes performance. But if you are someone, like me, who just wants to boost health and fitness and you don’t have 45 minutes or an hour to work out, our data show that you can get big benefits from even a single minute of intense exercise.
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