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High-intensity workouts WON’T work for most people

High intensity interval training (HIIT) has become a popular way of  getting fit because of its potential to torch maximum calories in a minimum amount of time.

It has also been linked to body fat mass reduction and touted as a way to combat high insulin resistance, which causes diabetes.

But now a professor has wanted the workouts are not sustainable for the majority of people trying to lose weight and increase their activity levels.

Dr Panteleimon Ekkekakis, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, studies how our bodies and brains respond to exercise. 

He says the entire premise of HIIT – which involves alternating between intense bursts of exercise and fixed periods of less-intense activity – guarantees a level of displeasure and therefore does not encourage people to stick to it.

‘If you can take an hour of exercise and squeeze it into one minute, there’s a price to pay,’ he said.

‘The price is 100 percent intensity. It’s undeniable that the experience will be unpleasant.’

Professor Panteleimon Ekkekakis believes HIIT guarantees a level of displeasure and therefore does not encourage people to stick to it (stock photo)


HIIT describes any workout that involves short burst of high-intensity exercise followed by a brief low-intensity activity, repeatedly.

The medium exercise should be about 50% intensity. The number of repetitions and length of each depends on the exercise, but may be as little as three repetitions with just 20 seconds of intense exercise. 

There is no specific formula to HIIT. A common method involves a 2:1 ratio of work to recovery periods, for example, 30-40 seconds of hard sprinting alternated with 15-20 seconds of jogging or walking, repeated to failure.

The entire HIIT session may last between four and 30 minutes, meaning that it is considered to be an good way to maximize a workout in a short time. 

Exercise must be enjoyable

Proponents of HIIT argue it is a great way to help busy people squeeze in a workout, Professor Ekkekakis said.

Lack of time is much quoted reason in surveys for why people do not exercise enough so HIIT should be a good option. But he says it is not that simple.

He argues enjoyment of your leisure and activity time is the key motivating factor when it comes to sticking to exercise routine long term. 

He said that most people do not adhere to a workout philosophy of ‘no pain, no gain,’ therefore condensing the duration will not make a difference. 

Professor Ekkekakis believes our mindset must shift from thinking of exercise as another daily task, to making it an enjoyable part of our lifestyle.

‘The message of ‘squeezing it in’ perpetuates the idea that exercise is a chore. We want to break down the association of exercise as punishment, as something unpleasant, something to tolerate or a bitter pill you have to swallow,’ he said.

‘For example, instead of viewing a bike ride as exercise, we want people to think of it as a chance to enjoy the outdoors or to spend time with family.’

‘The wrong public health message

Officials recommend adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, such as cycling or brisk walking, and strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).

But only 3.2 percent of Americans get a combined 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity at least five days a week, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

It’s a similar picture in the UK. About 6 million middle-aged people in England are endangering their health by not taking so much as a brisk walk once a month, government advisers recently revealed.

Professor Ekkekakis added: ‘I fear these programs send the wrong public health message. The people who can maintain this type of training are a small minority.Most people are overweight, sedentary and not getting enough activity,

‘The only objective that makes sense is to adopt a type and amount of exercise that will help you incorporate exercise into your daily life so you can be active for the rest of your life.’

Previous studies have also questioned whether the general population can safely or practically tolerate the extreme nature of the exercise regimen.

Researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, in 2007 noted that HIIT requires ‘an extremely high level of subject motivation’.