Are you ready to shake up your workout? Do you wish you could burn more calories without spending more time at the gym? Consider aerobic interval training. Once the domain of elite athletes, interval training has become a powerful tool for the average exerciser, too.
It's not as complicated as you might think. Interval training is simply alternating short bursts (approximately 30 seconds) of intense activity with longer intervals (three to four minutes) of less intense activity.
For instance, if your exercise is walking — if you're in good shape, you might incorporate short bursts of jogging into your regular brisk walks. If you're less fit, you might alternate leisurely walking with periods of faster walking. For example, if you're walking outdoors, you could walk faster between certain mailboxes, trees or other landmarks.
Whether you're a novice exerciser or you've been exercising for years, interval training can help you jazz up your workout routine. Consider the benefits:
- You'll burn more calories. The more vigorously you exercise, the more calories you'll burn — even if you increase intensity for just a few minutes at a time.
- You'll be more time efficient. Many people don't exercise because they say they don't have time. Interval training enables you to complete an effective workout in less time.
- You'll improve your aerobic capacity. As your cardiovascular fitness improves, you'll be able to exercise longer or with more intensity. Imagine finishing your 60-minute walk in 45 minutes — or the additional calories you'll burn by keeping up the pace for the full 60 minutes.
- You'll keep boredom at bay. Turning up your intensity in short intervals can add variety to your exercise routine.
- You don't need special equipment. You can perform intervals walking, running, biking, swimming or while working out on an elliptical trainer.
Yes — but you can take interval training to many levels. If you simply want to vary your exercise routine, you can determine the length and speed of each high-intensity interval based on how you feel that day.
After warming up, you might increase the intensity for 30 seconds and then resume your normal pace. How much you pick up the pace, how often and for how long is up to you.
If you're working toward a specific fitness goal, you may want to take a more scientific approach. A personal trainer or other expert can help you time the intensity and duration of your intervals — which may include movement patterns similar to those you'll use during your sport or activity — based on your target heart rate, the ability of your heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to your muscles (peak oxygen intake), and other factors.
Interval training isn't appropriate for everyone. If you have a chronic health condition or haven't been exercising regularly, consult your doctor before trying any type of interval training. Studies suggest, however, that interval training can be safe and beneficial even in people with heart disease.
Also keep the risk of overuse injury in mind. If you rush into a strenuous workout before your body is ready, you may injure your muscles, tendons or bones. Interval training doesn't have to involve high-impact exercise, ballistic or jumping movements, or heavy weights. Instead, start slowly. Try doing just one or two higher intensity intervals during each workout at first. If you think you're overdoing it, slow down. As your stamina improves, challenge yourself to vary the pace. You may be surprised by the results.
March 22, 2019
- Developing an interval training program. ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal. 2014;18:3.
- Weston M, et al. Effects of low-volume high-intensity interval training (HIT) on fitness in adults: A meta-analysis of controlled and non-controlled trials. Sports Medicine. 2014;44:1005.
- Gillen JB, et al. Is high-intensity interval training a time-efficient exercise strategy to improve health and fitness? Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2014;39:409.
- Nakahara H, et al. Low-frequency severe-intensity interval training improves cardiorespiratory functions. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. In press. Accessed Feb. 20, 2015.
- Kessler HS, et al. The potential for high-intensity interval training to reduce cardiometabolic disease risk. Sports Medicine. 2012;42:489.
- Elliott AD, et al. Interval training versus continuous exercise in patients with coronary artery disease: A meta-analysis. Heart, Lung & Circulation. 2015;24:149.
- Sharman JE, et al. Exercise and cardiovascular risk in patients with hypertension. American Journal of Hypertension. 2015;28:147.
- ACSM information on: High-intensity interval training. American College of Sports Medicine. https://www.acsm.org/access-public-information/brochures-fact-sheets/brochures. Accessed March 3, 2015.
- Tanisho K, et al. Training effects on endurance capacity in maximal intermittent exercise: Comparison between continuous and interval training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009;23:2405.
- Robinson MM, et al. Enhanced protein translation underlies improved metabolic and physical adaptations to different exercise training modes in young and old humans. Cell Metabolism. 2017;25:581.
- Xie B, et al. Effects of high-intensity interval training on aerobic capacity in cardiac patients: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Biomed Research International. 2017;2017:5420840.
- Laskowski ER (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Jan. 11, 2018.