HIIT Workouts – How Much is Too Much?

I should preface this by admitting – I’m a doctor, and I attend Orange Theory for HIIT workouts – maybe a little too much.

There’s a lot of talk lately about our shrinking attention spans. Who has time for anything anymore? So it’s no wonder that the hottest thing in fitness is “high intensity interval training” or HIIT. It’s the perfect workout for all of us with borderline-ADD.  With interval training, you may work out for an hour. But you never do one exercise for more than five minutes, and typically not more than 90 seconds. Sprint, then burpees, then jumping jacks, then hop on the rower. Constantly changing it up makes for a workout that fits our diminishing attention spans. You also burn a ton of calories in a short time, and it’s great for your heart. Working out at a high intensity can improve your blood pressure and overall cardiac fitness.

So, what’s not to love about it? It can be taxing on your body, and can leave some of us with injuries. Particularly if your form begins to suffer when you get tired (spoiler – nearly everyone’s does).  

Experts are now only recommending HIIT no more than 2-3 times per week for most healthy people. The primary concern? Fatigue-induced overuse injuries.

Also, you should know that the so-called “afterburn” or EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) has been mostly debunked.  There is some degree of calorie burn that happens in the eight hours or so after the workout. But it’s minimal relative to the workout itself, and it’s not that different than what you would get after a steady-state cardio workout at moderate intensity for a longer time.

If you’re not into HIIT, you’re likely doing what we’ve always done. Running, cycling, rowing, swimming at moderate intensity – what’s known as steady-state cardio. That’s really good for you too!  Both HIIT and steady-state cardio are great for your heart and overall fitness. Steady-state takes longer to burn the same amount of calories, but is less taxing on your body.

And one final word about exercise and weight loss. Be careful about using exercise (either HIIT or steady state cardio) as a transactional calorie system where you get to eat more food if you exercise. This mentality often leads to failure.

Studies have shown over and over again, that when it comes to weight loss, the most important thing is what and how much you eat. There’s a common saying – “abs are created in the kitchen,” and it’s mostly true. So should you do HIIT or steady-state cardio? Probably some combination of both. Find the mix that feels right to you. At the end of the day, you’re exercising!  Don’t overthink it. Do the exercise that’s enjoyable to you, because that’s the one you’ll stick with.

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