Fits and Starts 

Interval training can be a great way to get fit fast.

In college, one of my favorite studying techniques was to apply myself diligently to my work for, say, 30 minutes or so and then break to eat Pop-Tarts or watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I would repeat this pattern all night, until I felt I could retain whatever information I had been learning long enough to pass my test, which was usually the next day.

Basically, I was interval studying. I would work and rest, work and rest, until I was done. These days, as a parent and generally busy dude, I find I can successfully apply those somewhat questionable study habits to a variety of other responsibilities in my life. I can interval clean, interval work, even interval sleep. I can get a lot done this way, especially when I work out. It's amazing how useful interval training can be.

If you haven't yet connected the dots, interval training, also known as HIIT (high-intensity interval training), is simply repeating short bursts of activity followed by even shorter rest periods at near maximum exertion for a brief period of time. What this means is if you exercise really hard for 20 minutes or so, and only take little breaks while you're doing it, you can actually get a good workout in.

click to enlarge LUNAMARINA | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Lunamarina | Dreamstime.com

So how does one interval train? It's easy. All you need is somewhere between four and 30 minutes and enough space to move around a little bit. Let's say you are pretty out of shape or that you haven't worked out in over a year. Obviously, you wouldn't want to just jump up and do 30 minutes of burpees and jumping lunges (actually, no one should ever do that), but that doesn't mean you can't get down on some HIIT. After checking with your doctor (that's not just legalese; it's a good idea), you could set a goal for four minutes of exercise. Since you're not used to working out, it won't take much for you to reach maximum exertion. And maximum exertion is what we're shooting for here — but only for a short period of time. So using a simple 2:1 exercise/rest ratio, you could do something like this: 20 seconds of jogging in place; 10 seconds of rest; 20 seconds of jumping jacks; 10 seconds of rest. Do that four times, and, BOOM, you just worked out. You'll feel better, and you will have burned 50-75 calories. It's literally that simple.

What if after a month of jogging in place and jumping jacks, you can repeat the routine 10 or 20 times, and you're getting bored? Just make the exercises harder. Go online and google "body-weight exercises." You'll find dozens of websites detailing thousands of exercises, most of which are easy to blend into any HIIT workout. A more difficult HIIT workout could look like this: 20 seconds of burpees; 10 seconds of rest; 20 seconds of lunges; 10 seconds of rest; 20 seconds of push-ups; 10 seconds rest; 20 seconds of sprints in place; 10 seconds of rest. Repeat that three or four times, and you're going to be very sweaty indeed.

Just use some common sense, and as always, if you start feeling nauseous or dizzy, stop and rest. A variety of factors can cause you to feel sick when you first start training, and most of them are quick fixes. But don't try to push through. Just take a break until you feel better. And listen (and this is really important): High-intensity interval training programs like Tabata and INSANITY are wonderful, and we use them all the time at our gym. However, they are not as effective at building muscle as is resistance training, and every exercise program needs diversity. This means that you need to mix your HIIT with some weight-lifting and some slow, steady-state cardio (jogging, biking, walking) and, of course, nutrition to actually be fit and healthy.

Besides, doing the same thing all the time is no fun. Seven years of college taught me that.

Mark Akin is a personal trainer and co-owner of Envision Fitness.

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