I'd always figured that unless I could make it to the gym for at least an hour, I shouldn't bother—which meant I seldom bothered. Now I began shopping for shorter workouts, and found something called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. The cardio cousin of high-intensity training (HIT)—a strength workout practiced by bodybuilders since the '70s—HIIT favors short bursts of exertion over continuous exercise. HIT's founder, Nautilus workout- machine inventor Arthur Jones, was inspired in part by watching gorillas and lions—strong animals that spend most of the day at rest but expend great energy when necessary. Since my exercise spirit animal is probably the sloth, I decided to try HIIT.
I began applying the approach to running and weight-bearing exercises like sit-ups and push-ups because they required no gym or equipment (and thereby took away two excuses I'd happily used in the past to get out of workouts). Three to four times a week, I started devoting at least ten minutes to doing a physical activity the HIIT way: run as fast or do as many sit-ups as possible for 30 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds, then repeat. On days I felt stronger, I'd keep the pattern going for 20 minutes, or lengthen my reps to a minute each. The point of sweaty exhaustion I reached felt satisfying without taking a big chunk out of my day. The bonus: Shorter workouts didn't make me feel as hungry as my endless exercise sessions had, which made it easier to resist eating back every calorie I'd just burned.
Plus, HIIT is bang for my buck: Recent studies have shown that HIIT can yield the same benefits as longer workouts. At Canada's McMaster University, researchers found that a thrice-weekly HIIT workout on a stationary bike delivered physical benefits similar to traditional endurance training (continuous exercise for 40 to 60 minutes, five times a week). Likewise, researchers from the United Kingdom found that adding just ten to 40 seconds of intense sprinting to a ten-minute low-intensity cycling session three times a week improved insulin sensitivity—an important factor in obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (And a little exercise might be better for your health than too much. David Nieman, former vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine, reports that physical exertion beyond 90 minutes at a time—which I often did—can lower the body's immune defenses for up to 72 hours. Yikes.)
Giving up on trying to be passionate about my workouts has made me dislike them far less. Pretending to have fun was exhausting, and waiting for Cupid's arrow to hit me midlunge was a decades-long disappointment I'm glad to be rid of. I'm not just getting fit—I'm getting real.
Case in point: There are three women in my neighborhood who go for a run together around 6:30 every morning. I say run, but they move with an effortless and slightly flirtatious abandon, as though they're auditioning for Baywatch. Watching them bounce down the road, I used to feel a sense of crushing injustice.
Not anymore. Setting realistic goals has meant acknowledging I'm of another tribe than these women. A less perky tribe that likes to sleep past 7 and doesn't like to run. Now when I see them out jogging, I close my drapes. They can get it on with exercise all they want. I'm happier—and in better shape—not looking for that kind of love.
Alissa Nutting is an assistant professor of English at John Carroll University.
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