A Little Exercise Goes a Long Way for Your Heart
Scientists agree: There is little that’s more beneficial to your heart than exercise. But today’s busy schedules can make it hard to establish a regular routine. Fortunately, researchers are finding that it’s not necessary to run marathons or spend long hours on the treadmill to get substantial cardiovascular perks.
More and more research shows that quick bursts of activity separated by short rest periods—called high intensity interval training, or HIT—produces many of the benefits of a typical 30-minute workout in a fraction of the time, from healthier blood vessels to better blood sugar control, greater aerobic capacity and improved body composition. HIT workouts have been popularized in “boot-camp” style gym classes, but they aren’t just for hard-core athletes. In fact interval training can be applied to almost any workout. What can you expect from starting a HIT habit?
- More elastic blood vessels
In a study from McMaster University in Canada, patients performed either a short intense workout—four to six 30-second all-out sprints separated by about 5 minutes of rest—three days a week, or 40 to 60 minutes of a conventional workout, five days a week. After six weeks, researchers showed that participants benefited equally. Exercise, whether an intense mini-workout or a typical long one, improved the function and structure of their blood vessels, making them more elastic and better able to dilate, allowing blood to flow freely. Simple blood and urine tests are available to help assess the health of your blood vessels.
- Lower blood pressure
Just two sessions a week of a high-intensity exercise regimen lowered blood pressure by 9 percent, according to a Scottish study, in which participants—all over age 60—pedaled all-out for just six seconds then rested for about a minute, working up to 10 sprint-rest cycles per workout.
- Better glucose control
In recent Norwegian research, scientists compared a group of people with type 2 diabetes engaging in HIT exercise to a similar group of patients who did a traditional moderate workout instead. Both groups achieved lower blood pressure, body fat and a smaller waist and hip circumference. But only those doing HIT training saw significantly lower A1C levels, an indicator of blood sugar control.
- Improved body composition
A number of studies show that HIT workouts reduce fat, increase muscle mass and reduce weight overall. And a group of young men enrolled in a HIT program for 12 weeks experienced a 17 percent drop in dangerous visceral fat, according to Australian research. Young women performing a similar routine for 15 weeks had significant reductions both in total fat and the subcutaneous fat in their legs and trunk, data show.
To safely incorporate the HIT principle into your usual workout, try alternating short intervals of hard effort and longer rest or recovery intervals. If you walk or jog, for instance, just pick up the pace for 30 to 45 seconds and get out of your comfort zone then return to a normal pace. Just ten minutes of such a pattern three times a week can make a difference. Experts hope that HIT workouts will spur more people to exercise, playing a welcome role in reversing the troubling rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.