One of the most common questions around fitness has been, "What is the best exercise out there?" Well, a recent New York Times Magazine article asked a number of experts the same question—of course none of them could agree. But one of the most popular exercises mentioned as the best was my personal favorite: interval training.
Interval training—a method of exercise that combines moderate-paced aerobic activity with short bursts of high-intensity or high-speed exercise—is great for folks who have been exercising consistently and reached a plateau or haven’t worked out since high school gym class.
A 2007 Australian study found that women who used the method for just 20 minutes three days a week lost five times as much weight as those who exercised at a steady, fast speed for 40 minutes three days a week. This is great news for people who don't have a lot of time to be at the gym or workout for hours a day. You get in, you get out and you move on with your day.
That's the key to sticking with a workout. If you feel that it is too daunting and too time consuming, you won't stick with it.
Interval training also has awesome health benefits. Evidence suggests that the method may increase good (HDL) cholesterol levels, improve cardiovascular health, stabilize blood sugar levels and jump-start metabolism—all of which could benefit the health needs of African-Americans. You will also burn more calories and improve your endurance.
An example of a workout: You might walk on a treadmill at 3.5 mph for five minutes, then switch the speed to 5.5 mph for one minute. Repeat this sequence three times, and you have a routine. Or you could do what I do, and every time you go from 3.5 to the fast interval, notch it up .3 mph each interval. So if the first fast interval is 5.5., the second one is 5.8, the third is 6.1, and so forth. My interval workouts usually last 25 minutes with a five minute cool down.
What are some other benefits of interval training? It can be incorporated into any type of exercise—elliptical machine, treadmill or stair stepper, swimming, walking—even strength training. And at any fitness level, you can do some variation.
Are there any risks? Interval training can significantly stress the body. To get stronger, you need to push yourself—but don’t push beyond what your body can handle. If you have heart disease or joint problems or you haven’t been exercising for a while, get clearance from your doctor first.
Warm up thoroughly to avoid pulling a muscle. Cool down afterward to lower your heart rate. Stretch after exercising.
Start slow. Begin with one interval workout a week; work up to two or three. Begin at 30 seconds for the fast interval. Once you get used to that, progress to a minute or more. Same with the speed: Start at a speed that is challenging, but not too hard; increase over time.
Shake it up. You can mix different exercises. Alternate walking with jumping jacks or a set of push-ups, then return to walking.
You should consult your doctor before starting any exercise program. Read more about interval training here.
(Photo: Jeff Roberts/Landov)