Why You Need a (Much) Shorter Workout

Accomplished exercise researcher Martin Gibala reveals the unique importance of interval training for the older guy.

No exercise scientist has done more over the years to draw attention to the effectiveness of high-intensity interval training—short bursts of rigorous, rapid-fire exercise—than Martin Gibala, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. For years, Gibala and his researchers have published dozens of articles consistently showing that interval training ignites your body's stress response and leads to all manner of positive health effects. Last year, he delivered his splashiest findings yet, in the journal PLOS One, where he and his team revealed that a single minute of high-intensity effort—such as sprinting, hammering out Burpees, or throwing ropes—has the same physiological benefits as 45 minutes of moderate exercise like jogging.

With the arrival of his new book, The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That's Smarter, Faster, Shorter, we chatted with Gibala about why higher-intensity training is essential for the older man. Bonus: if you're in the market for a new HIIT routine, don't miss these four super simple ones you need to do right now.

You've done more than anyone to popularize interval training. When you go to the gym and see guys casually lifting weights, jogging on the treadmill, and basically watching TV, do you ever just want to shake them, and say, "Listen, there's a more efficient way to do this!"?

Well, clearly I am a proponent of interval training. I think it's a very time efficient and effective way for people to exercise, but there's nothing wrong with the old approach. Our biggest problem in Canada—and I know it's very much the same in the U.S.—is we need to get people moving more. So, I think that if you're exercising, you're halfway there. Because if we look at the adherence of Public Health Guidelines, it's pretty poor and so an overall message is "Let's just get people moving." Whatever they're doing—whether it's the most efficient way to train or not—that's only part of the consideration.

If people are looking to improve performance in the most time-effective way, and if they're looking to improve health in the most time effective way, then I think incorporating interval training is a very good strategy. But when I talk to my colleagues who work in human behavior and health psychology, they're quick to remind me that we should give people more menu options to choose from. People like to demonize traditional steady-state cardio, and people say it's a waste of time or it's ineffective, yet clearly that's not true. Our message is more "Yeah, we believe in interval training, we think it's effective, and it's one option that's out there."

In other words: you do you.

Yes, if it works for you, great. I train, personally, almost exclusively with intervals, whether it's body-weight style intervals, or whether it's cardio on a bike, it's largely interval based, so again, if that works for you, awesome.

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What's the evolutionary explanation—or theory—for why interval training is so effective?

There's a colleague whom I've come to know and respect, Alan Batterham, who works at Teesside University in the UK, and Alan made the great observation that humans lack a biological signal to get us to exercise. It's a bit of an irony given that it's so good for us. If we're hungry, we have hunger pains that suggest we should eat. There's obviously a sex drive, but there's not necessarily this innate biological drive to get us to exercise.

Now, if you take an evolutionary view, going back to hunters and gatherers, obviously those individuals that could sprint for short periods of time would literally outrun some other folks, either to escape a predator or to chase down and kill a predator. So, there's a long stretch there from hunter/gatherer societies and having to flee from predators, or fight and win to beat others to be able to eat, but I think you could draw some parallels there.

It's also been pointed out to me that intervals more resemble natural play. So, if you look at children in a playground, they don't sort of jog at a moderate pace for a continuous period of time. They run and jump and they take breaks and they sprint, and then stop and take a break. So, in some ways I think intervals tend to resemble more natural activities, either from an evolutionary perspective or from a child behavior perspective.

What does interval training mean for the older guy, specifically? Why should the body-conscious 40 year-old adopt it, if he hasn't already?

Interval training is not all about short bursts of as-hard-as-you-can-go exercise. There are many different flavors of interval training, and many different flavors of interval training have been applied to middle-aged and older individuals who are both healthy and unhealthy—people with Type 2 Diabetes, or metabolic syndrome, or cardiovascular disease. In Norway, there's an individual named Ulrik Wisloff at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who's arguably the leader in the field in terms of applying interval exercise training to people with cardio metabolic disease. In particular, those who have heart disease and cardiovascular illness.

Ultimately fitness is a very strong and independent marker for cardiovascular health, and one of the best ways to boost cardiorespiratory fitness is by utilizing more intense exercise. That's great for men.

The idea of boosting intensity—which can result in greater improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness—is important not only if you're an athlete but also if you're an average, everyday guy looking to maintain a higher quality of life. For a higher health span, not just lifespan. We need to worry about health span, and that's basically optimal physical activity in order to maintain your health.

Are there any interval apps that you recommend?

No, is the short answer. I know there's a ton out there, I can't point to one in particular. I have a timer on my phone, but I don't really even know what one it is, but just a basic timer that helps when you should push, and then when you should start to take some recovery. Generally, I don't require or use a lot of technology. The one thing I always use is a heart rate monitor just because I like to see what typical I'm in, so I can sort of have some objective feedback on my exercise intensity, but otherwise I don't rely on a ton of gadgets when I exercise. (Ed note: See here for our roundup of 6 futuristic fitness trackers.)

Your research has largely coincided with the rise of these very trendy and very intense group-style workouts—boot camps, CrossFit, Orange Theory, etc. What do you make of the trend of ultra, ultra-high-intensity training?

Without speaking about any particular program or approach or company in particular, I think there's two ways to view it clearly. On the one hand these sort of approaches can be motivating to people because there's a social element. There's a competitive element to that and that can be motivating for a number of individuals. There's almost a tribe mentality a little bit, "I belong here. I feel like I belong. I'm part of this culture that adopts this particular style of training," so it can be quite motivating for individuals.

On the other hand, of course, I think people have to be smart and this gets back to the idea that there's many different flavors and styles of interval training. Some styles especially—if it's body weight-style intervals—we're talking about loaded intervals, or some types of cardio intervals: running style intervals versus cycling style intervals. The form is associated with higher joint impact forces. Some types of interval training can be associated with higher risk for injury. Ultimately People just need to be smart, they need to listen to their body, they need to get some good direction.

Main image courtesy of instagram/niketraining.

Keenan Mayo
Keenan Mayo has been a lifestyle journalist for more than a decade. Read more
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