Short, intense workouts may be most effective


The popularity of the long, often tedious workout is fading as more people favor shorter, high intensity workouts with rest through interval training.

Interval training, which involves increasing the heart rate with a quick spurt of energy for a short time and then bringing the heart rate back down, has been utilized as a workout tool for a long time. But recently people have realized that it has significant health benefits.

Barbara Lockhart, a BYU exercise science professor, believes that interval training is the most effective and efficient way to build one’s cardiorespiratory system.

“In the past, people thought it was too hard, too intense, and that normal people couldn’t do it, just athletes,” Lockhart said. “Well that’s a misnomer because who can’t raise their pulse and lower it back down? Anyone can do this.”

Members of the BYU track team work out doing interval training. (Photo by Chris Bunker)
Members of the BYU track team work out doing interval training. (Photo by Chris Bunker)

BYU does not offer a class for interval training, but Lockhart and other professors are making the effort to incorporate the basics into established student activity classes like jogging. It is easy to incorporate interval training into almost any form of exercise including running, walking, swimming and rowing, so most people do it alone.

The key is to elevate one’s heart rate for a short amount of time and then lower it again and to repeat the process a few times for about 20 to 30 minutes. One example would be sprinting to get to 80 to 90 percent of maximum heart rate and maintaining this pace for 20 seconds, then walking for two minutes and repeating the cycle.

Lockhart explained the many benefits that come from interval training such as weight loss, muscle toning, increased energy, less stress and maintained stamina.

“A lot of our health problems today are stress related,” Lockhart said. “The more we can train our bodies to slow down after exercise, the more it helps offset negative effects of stress. People sleep better at night, they are less anxious and it helps normalize blood pressure.”

Lockhart compared the process to a wave-like pattern. She said as soon as people reach their target heart rate, they must actively lower the rate to a resting pulse. Once they reach a resting pulse, they must put in another spurt of energy, eliminating a steady state of exercise.

She teaches a mind-body wellness philosophy and believes it takes a conscious effort to bring down one’s heart rate to a resting rate after an intense spurt.

“You can actually think your pulse down,” Lockhart said. “If you’re not in-tune and focused, you don’t get the benefits. It’s like yoga in that sense.”

One of Lockhart’s former students, Camilla Nielson, is studying the effects of interval training on blood pressure for her graduate thesis. Nielson started interval training after she graduated from BYU because she no longer had access to a gym and wanted to do effective workouts on her own. She has been doing interval training for four years and still enjoys it.

“At first I just kept thinking, ‘This is really weird,'” Nielson said. “Sometimes you have to sit down and take really deep breaths to get your heart rate that low, and I didn’t feel like I was getting a good workout, but by the end I could tell I had a great workout, and I like the variety in the workout.”

Nielson said the only downside to interval training would be if people with less experience were to push themselves too far and injure themselves, but she said the benefits are too great to ignore.

Another benefit is what is known as EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption), which is informally referred to as the “afterburn” effect.

Rita Argueta, a recent exercise and wellness graduate, explained EPOC as an increased intake of oxygen to refill the body’s “oxygen debt” after exercise. The more intense a workout, the greater this oxygen debt, and the body increases oxygen consumption to return to a resting state. This requires chemical processes in the body, which require energy. A lot of the energy comes from fatty acids the body has stored.

“A slow jog won’t burn much after a workout,” Argueta said. “But with interval training, you’re burning calories for up to 24 hours after you’ve stopped exercising.”

Argueta said she believes this type of workout is effective for all people: old and young, men and women, athletic and non-athletic.

Sharron Collier has a disability from surviving polio earlier in life. She took the principles of interval training and found a way to apply them to her own situation. After doing physical activity, she would tire quickly. Collier walked on her treadmill for five minutes, rested for five minutes, lifted weights for five minutes, then rested for another five minutes.

“Just by doing that kind of exercise, I found that my strength increased, my walking ability got a lot stronger and I felt a lot more endurance,” Collier said. “I felt like I was exercising where before, whenever I would try to walk for 30 minutes, I would be so exhausted; I just couldn’t do it.”

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