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Low-Volume, High-Intensity Training Has Lasting Health Benefits, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • Just five minutes of high-intensity training can be beneficial, researchers suggest.
  • Getting even low volumes of training can help improve blood pressure, insulin response, and weight management.
  • Previous research shows advantages with low-impact training sessions as well, making this an appropriate strategy for a variety of people, even those who are older.

Although many high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions tend to be about 15 minutes, a research review published in the Journal of Physiology suggests you can get benefits in just a third of that time.

Researchers looked at 11 studies, comprising nearly 300 participants overall, that used randomized trials of HIIT to determine cardiometabolic outcomes. As the name suggests, HIIT uses intense, short bursts of exercise done in intervals, with brief rest periods between each. The researchers found that even low volumes (approximately five minutes) of HIIT could bring significant improvements in blood pressure, insulin regulation, weight management, and respiratory efficiency.

Acknowledging that more research needs to be done about why this might be, the researchers suggested the benefits are likely linked to enhanced cellular function and improved blood flow.

Why is HIIT so Beneficial?

Previous research offers more clues about why HIIT seems to be so beneficial compared to other, steady-state forms of exercise.

For example, commentary in The Journal of Physiology in 2016 noted that HIIT seems to have an advantage due to:

  • Time efficiency
  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Better cardiovascular function
  • Increased muscle oxidative capacity
  • Improved oxygen usage
  • Better skeletal muscle adaptation

Although that seems like a notable amount of benefits from exercise sessions that last only five to 15 minutes, it’s actually only a part of a longer list of potential benefits, according to the American Council on Exercise.

A Cautionary Note

Because of the popularity of HIIT, many people tend to jump into the workout at full force—often literally. Many HIIT sessions include exercises like jump squats, burpees, and sprints. But without proper conditioning of lower-body muscles, that can put a strain on joints, according to Cordelia Carter, M.D., a specialist in sports orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Health in New York.

Cordelia Carter, MD

Many HIIT sessions include exercises like jump squats, burpees, and sprints. But without proper conditioning of lower-body muscles, that can put a strain on joints. That can lead to overuse injuries and sometimes even stress fractures.

— Cordelia Carter, MD

"Literally, I see this multiple times a week," she says. "If you're repeatedly doing impact from any height, that creates more force going through your joints and into your bones. That can lead to overuse injuries and sometimes even stress fractures. With sudden movement, you're risking ACL tears and ankle sprains."

This can be particularly true if you’ve spent a big chunk of COVID-19 lockdown time being more sedentary than usual—if that’s the case, you’re certainly not alone, research indicates—which can cause significant areas of tightness in the body that are exacerbated with HIIT, says Erin Mahoney, vice president of education for International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), a fitness certifications provider.

“Being sedentary changes our movement patterns because all that sitting causes the feet to turn out during activities like squatting and running, thanks to tight hamstrings and weak hip flexors,” she states. When you add in the increased load that occurs during jumping, it all transfers into the joints if your muscles aren't conditioned to carry that load.

Starting Slow with HIIT

For those who have been sedentary or haven’t done HIIT workouts regularly, a good entry point is to focus on bodyweight moves, particularly those considered low-impact but still high-intensity, sometimes called HILIT (High-Intensity Low Impact Training).

"Although we recommend that people new to exercise start with low-impact activity, that doesn't mean high-impact moves are the next level up," says Carter. "You can stay with HILIT forever and see tremendous progress and results."

Cordelia Carter, MD

You can stay with HILIT forever and see tremendous progress and results.

— Cordelia Carter, MD

However, it can be more challenging to get your heart rate to the threshold it would reach quickly with high-impact activity, Mahoney adds. With equipment like rowers, ellipticals, and stationary bikes, you can program intervals into the mix, she suggests, but if you're playing around with bodyweight moves, you'll likely have to perform the movements faster for a heart-rate lift.

Some examples of these moves with only bodyweight include:

  • Pushups
  • Brisk walking intervals
  • Lunges
  • Supermans
  • Squats
  • Mountain climbers

Even moves that require jumping can be easily modified, Carter says. For example, instead of jumping back and forward in the middle of a burpee, you step back and forth instead. You replace box jumps with step-ups, do regular squats instead of jump squats, and bike rather than run.

"Even if you're in a class or gym where there's a lot of jumping, like with CrossFit for example, you can always modify to make it low-impact," says Carter. "There isn't a specific HILIT workout to follow, you simply have to be mindful about how to maintain the intensity without relying on jumping to do it."

What This Means For You

Even short bouts of high-intensity exercise can have significant physical benefits. But with these brief sessions, be sure to ease into regular workouts safely, starting with low-impact options.

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Article Sources
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  1. Sabag A, Little JP, Johnson NA. Low‐volume high‐intensity interval training for cardiometabolic healthJ Physiol. Published online April 18, 2021:JP281210. doi:10.1113/JP281210

  2. Nicolò, A. and Girardi, M. (2016), The physiology of interval training: a new target to HIIT. J Physiol, 594: 7169-7170. doi:10.1113/JP273466

  3. American Council on Exercise. 8 Reasons HIIT Workouts are So Effective. Published September 30, 2014.

  4. Zheng C, Huang WY, Sheridan S, Sit CH, Chen XK, Wong SH. COVID-19 Pandemic Brings a Sedentary Lifestyle in Young Adults: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal StudyInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(17):6035. Published 2020 Aug 19. doi:10.3390/ijerph17176035