Interval Training

Could 10 Minutes of Exercise Make You Fit ?

Study after study shows that we are in denial about a number of things – our weight and our calorie intake both of which we generally tend to under-estimate. But nothing comes close to the amount by which we over-estimate how active we are.

In a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, US adults self-reported close to 60 minutes of daily activity everyday (this includes exercise and also other casual activity such as gardening, household chores or walking to the pantry to pick up a chocolate!). However when activity levels were actually measured using an accelerometer turns out we are active for an average of just 9 minutes daily!

Guidelines provided by the American Council of Sports Medicine and endorsed by other leading health organizations suggest 150 minutes / week of moderate intensity activity (i.e. brisk walking or jogging) – which only 9% of US adults actually achieved. This level of activity is considered necessary to maintain / improve fitness.

So how do we resolve this problem ? A team of exercise physiologists from McMaster University, led by Gillen JB looked to see if we could improve our fitness by exercising for just 10 minutes, 3 times a week (Martin Gibala, a co-author to the study is a pioneer in interval training). After completing a 2-minute warm-up, study participants cycled all out for 20 seconds, followed by 2 minutes of recovery where they cycled at a gentle place. This was repeated 2 more times during that session and then finished off with a 3 minute cool down for a total time commitment of 10 minutes per session.

The results were astonishing – within 6 weeks both men & women saw a significant increase in their cardio-respiratory fitness by ~12%.

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Gillen JB, Percival ME, Skelly LE, Martin BJ, Tan RB, et al. (2014) Three Minutes of All-Out Intermittent Exercise per Week Increases Skeletal Muscle Oxidative Capacity and Improves Cardiometabolic Health. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111489. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111489

In addition, they also saw important health benefits – mean arterial pressure (which correlates with blood pressure) decreased by 7%. Insulin sensitivity (important for those with pre-diabetes & diabetes) also improved amongst both groups. 24-hour glucose levels however only dropped amongst men (& not amongst women, which warrants further study).

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This is not the first study to show significant benefits for interval training over continuous exercise – a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by Weston et al showed 2x improvement in fitness through interval training compared to moderate intensity continuous exercise. Another review by W Kent in the same publication indicated a 15% increase in fitness within 6 weeks of interval training.

What’s unique in this study is the relatively low time commitment required to achieve this remarkable improvement in fitness and health – a level of commitment that almost everyone should be able to make (with of course brief moments of intense effort). In other words there are no more excuses for not getting fit!


Disclaimer: The content on this blog (and linked websites) is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog or linked websites. Reliance on any information provided on this blog is solely at your own risk

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Definitions, Guidelines

How Fit Should You Be ?

Most of us would say being fit is a good thing – but exactly how fit do we need to be ? The answer – like most things in life – tends to be ‘it depends’. If your goal is to improve your athletic performance then definitely more is better (well trained world class athletes tend to have 2-3x higher fitness than the average untrained person).

However if you’re someone like me who does not want to compete in the Olympics (!) but does want to stay healthy, then is there a fitness level you could target? What is a healthy fitness level … lets see if science can give us an answer.

Fitness = Maximum Oxygen Uptake

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As I had defined in an earlier post, fitness or more precisely cardio-respiratory fitness is the ability of the body to supply oxygen to muscles during times of increased physical activity. Fitness is typically expressed as VO2Max, i.e. the maximum oxygen your body can uptake during structured exercise. And usually estimated by measuring oxygen uptake while progressively increasing running or biking speed until the person reaches maximum oxygen uptake (commonly called a “stress test” or maximal test). Athletes typically have higher VO2Max numbers (Norwegian cyclist & junior world champion Oskar Svendson has one of the highest reported fitness numbers / VO2Max of 97.5 ml/kg/min). VO2Max is typically expressed in units of ml/kg/min which basically translates to the maximum ml of oxygen per kg of body weight the body can utilize in a minute. Of course higher VO2Max by itself doesn’t guarantee a better race outcome – motivation, training status, efficiency and a host of other factors matter. But having lower fitness certainly makes it more important to work on the rest.

11 METs = Healthy Fitness Level 

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From a health perspective, fitness is usually expressed as METs (Metabolic Equivalents) – a more clinically meaningful metric – both to understand how healthy the person is as well as to determine how much exercise intensity the person can cope with.  Essentially 1 MET =~3.5 VO2 units, which basically is the amount of oxygen you need to sit & watch TV! METs also provide an easy way to compare the relative intensity of different activities (the chart on the left is adapted from lists created by the CDC & ACSM).  The intensities are directly comparable – so sex is therefore almost 5 times as intense as watching TV. And your fitness needs to be at least 6 METs for you to be able to have sex, safely!

This gets even more relevant when you look at people with different fitness levels and their health outcomes. One of the seminal studies that looked at the relationship between fitness, cardio-vascular health & all-cause mortality was conducted by a group led by Saturo Kodama. They combined data from 33 different studies that covered 100,000+ subjects and segmented people into different levels of fitness.

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In categorical analyses, individuals with low CRF (<7.9 METs in MAC) had a substantially higher risk of all-cause mortality and CHD/CVD compared with those with intermediate and high CRF (7.9-10.8 and ≥10.9 METs in MAC, respectively) … These analyses suggest that a minimal CRF of 7.9 METs may be important for significant prevention of all-cause mortality and CHD/CVD

Those with fitness of less than 7.9 METs had a 40% higher risk of mortality than those with intermediate fitness (7.9 – 10.8 METs) and 70% higher risk than those with high fitness (10.9+ METs).  And every 1 MET increase in fitness tends to result in ~15% improvement in cardiovascular health. Based on the Kodama findings & other studies, I would categorize fitness into five zones (chart on the right). So increasing fitness beyond 7.9 METs yields dramatic improvement in health outcomes. And a fitness level of 11 METs or higher would be considered healthy.


Disclaimer: The content on this blog (and linked websites) is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog or linked websites. Reliance on any information provided on this blog is solely at your own risk.