Discovering HIIT

I have spent the majority of my life as an endurance athlete.  I started swimming when I was 5 years old, and as a distance freestyler I averaged 8,000-10,000 yards a practice, 9 – 10 practices a week, starting when I was 12.  I always loved running, and when I injured my shoulder at the age of 13 and needed to stay out of the water for a year, I took up cross country.  Until I started Residency 3 years ago, I was still swimming 90 minutes 5-6 days a week and running here and there for fun.  In my mind, a workout wasn’t a workout unless it took at least an hour.

Swimming, my favorite thing!

Enter Residency.  For those who have never had the privilege to experience it, Residency is basically modern day indentured servitude.  You pretty much lose control of your life.  You work insane hours for meager pay (once, as an intern, I calculated my hourly wage – it was barely above the state minimum).  You are regularly criticized and rarely praised.  Most of your time off is spent studying, performing required research or quality improvement studies, or sleeping.  Finding time to swim or run for an hour a day?  Ha, right.  I think maybe the most dedicated, who don’t live with a significant other, potentially could.  Despite my endorphin addiction and pretty determined dedication, though, I found I couldn’t.  I was getting older and 4 hours of sleep a night wasn’t cutting it anymore.  I was newly married and actually rather liked spending time with my husband.  And I was so terrified of screwing up and hurting someone that I spent any residual time reading about medicine.

I swam when I could and ran when I could, but I started to feel depressed.  Exercise has been such a huge part of my life that without it, I just feel gross and unhealthy.  The one good thing about being a resident is that your job is not sedentary – you run around all over the hospital – so I got a FitBit and felt a little better about myself when I realized that I was walking so many steps and getting in so many flights.

As I moved through residency and graduated from internship, things got a little better.  I became a more confident and efficient doctor, and I passed the torch of intern scut to the new batch of bright-eyed and eager recent medical school grads.  I started having a bit more time to workout, and on certain rotations I was actually able to get back into decent swimming shape.  At the end of 2 months of swimming 1 hour 4 days a week, for example, I was actually starting to make repeat 100s freestyle on 1:10!  I would feel amazing – healthy, vital, fast, strong, and happy.  Then, however, I’d be back on a really hard rotation with more demanding hours, and I would lose that wonderful feeling.

Like all good 30-somethings of this modern era, I spend an inordinate amount of time on Facebook.  Standing in line at the grocery store, sitting at a stoplight, brushing my teeth (yep, guilty!), I “like” and comment and post pictures with the best of them.  It was on Facebook that I, the endurance athlete who scoffs at the idea of a 24 minute “workout,” started to see a lot of adds for this new exercise concept called HIIT – high intensity interval training.  Things like Body Boss kept popping up on my feed, promising better fitness and body tone with just 24 minutes, 3 days a week!  I initially ignored it, but it was so relentlessly in my face that I eventually decided to see what this HIIT stuff was all about.

The concept of HIIT has been around forever.  But for those of you who are new to this concept, the idea is that you pretty much kill yourself with short bursts of really hard exercise with active recovery in between for an average duration of 25-30 minutes.  Because the activity is very high intensity, it’s an efficient way to work out: you burn more calories in a 28 minute HIIT workout than you do in 1 hour on the elliptical.  Best of all, the majority of HIIT workouts require little more than a small rectangle of space to perform, so you can do the workouts, well, anywhere.  According to the American Society of Sports Medicine, HIIT training has been shown to improve:

  • Aerobic and anaerobic fitness
  • Blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Insulin sensitivity (in fact, there are tons of publications advocating HIIT training for Type II diabetics)
  • Cholesterol profiles
  • Abdominal fat and body weight while maintaining muscle mass

Hmm…a highly effective workout routine that I can do at home in 30 minutes?  I had to try this!

Unwilling to pay for something I wasn’t yet 100% sold on, I went to the internet.  Just google “HIIT workout” and you will find hundreds of free workouts for your body-destroying enjoyment.  I pulled up a 28 minute workout from Fitness Blenderinwardly still not entirely convinced.  After a 5 minute warm up, I spent the next 20 minutes performing explosive movements for 20 seconds at a time with 10 seconds of active rest (such as a boxer shuffle) in between.  I squatted, lunged, jumped, and pushed-up until every muscle in my body screamed in protest, my heart pounding in my ears and my breath coming in ragged gasps.  At the end I stood hunched, hands on my knees, dripping sweat onto my living room carpet.  I couldn’t believe it had only been 25 minutes – it had felt like forever!

Okay, I admitted as I obediently performed the cool down portion of the workout.  That was hard.  And I was hooked!  HIIT has become a way for me to feed the endorphin monster, to maintain that strong and healthy feeling, on a minimal time budget.

I created a *free* account on Fitness Blender, which was started by a husband and wife team of personal trainers who thought that fitness should be accessible to everyone, no matter what their income (how can you not already love these people?!).   Fitness Blender has a TON of free full-length workout videos ranging in difficulty from 1-5 and in duration from 20 – 90 minutes.  You can pull up workouts that use equipment, but there are hundreds of workouts that require nothing more than an internet connection and an 6 x 4 ft rectangle of floor space.  I love their workouts because 1) they are both really encouraging instructors, 2) they have a visual and audio timer so you know when to go hard and when to do your active rest, and 3) they have the decency to also get a little tired at the end of a grueling level 4 or level 5 workout.  It’s just nice to know, when you feel like you are about to die, that even the uber fit personal trainer leading your workout is a wee bit winded.

fitness blender
Kelli and Daniel, egalitarian founders of Fitness Blender.

I believe it is still important to do other forms of aerobic exercise.  I haven’t given up swimming, for example – swimming is still my #1 choice for exercise and always will be.  Whenever I have the time to swim, I greedily snatch the opportunity.  Running, too.  However, on those days when I don’t have the time, or when it’s 100 degrees in Redlands and running would put me at risk for heat stroke, I happily log on to Fitness Blender and get my HIIT on, feeling awesome and exhausted 30 minutes later.

If you haven’t given HIIT a try, you really should, especially if you are low on time and want to improve your fitness level.  Let Kelli and Daniel of Fitness Blender make you a convert!