• 10 Minutes of Pain

    By Jay Diamond

    Sometimes I hate science. Science often tells me unintuitive things backed by evidence that I simply don’t want to know. Science is truth – and unfortunately sometimes the truth hurts.

    But let’s take a step back.

    I’m often asked a seeming silly, simple question which isn’t actually simple or silly at all. Unfortunately it’s often asked by fitness deniers – that is, people who don’t believe that physical activity will actually have an impact on their lives, or those who just don’t want to be active. Their question is intended to have me admit that it’s all really conjecture… all hyperbole.

    Does physical activity actually improve health?

    The answer is an unequivocal “yes”, but the surprising fact is how recently we’ve discovered this. When the amazing Jack LaLanne opened his first fitness club in Oakland in 1936, he had a vague notion, based on anecdotal evidence, that physical fitness had a positive impact on health. It turned out he was right, but it wouldn’t be proven by science for more than a decade.

    In 1949, Dr. Jerry Morris decided to figure out why heart attack rates were on the rise in post-World-War II London. Sampling workers on double-decker buses, he quickly discovered that the drivers had a much higher rate of coronary incidents than the conductors. These men, of similar age, social standing, and in the same working environment, had one large discrepancy in their daily activity: the drivers were sedentary while the conductors didn’t stop moving, ascending and descending 500-750 steps per working day. There are certainly other factors at work, like the stress level of both occupations (driving can be quite stressful while the conductors were predominantly in social situations), but the overriding outcome that exercise is beneficial on cardiovascular health is irrefutable. Morris went on to confirm this by studying postmen vs. sedentary mail clerks.

    I’m still stunned that we’ve really only known this connection for ~60 years…

    This is about the time when the fitness deniers talk about Jim Fixx, the author who started a running craze in the 1970s and dropped dead of a heart attack while running in 1984. I remind them that there are lots of factors in health, that Fixx was a heavy smoker prior to his running conversion, he was genetically predisposed to coronary disease, and that you’ve gotta die sometime doing something (if many of your waking hours are spent running, well, you do the math…).

    So exercise, in fact stressful exercise, is good for you (Morris also discovered that light activity wasn’t sufficient to stave off coronary disease).

    Taking this to the next level is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), with variants operating under various names (Sprint Interval Training, Tabata, etc.), is the concept of going full out (“high intensity”) for a short period, followed by a short period of rest, and repeating. The duration, peak output, and number of repetitions vary, but the core concept (and results) is generally the same. And I hate it. Because it’s hard. But facts are facts, and there is some impressive science behind HIIT.

    What if I told you that you could exercise under 10 minutes a WEEK and get the same results as 5 hours of exercise?

    We all love a quick-fix, and HIIT sounds like exactly that. It sounds like a scam – but it’s not. Unfortunately you will hate every moment of that 10 minutes of exercise.

    Scientists took two groups and put them through the following routine three times a week:

    • Group 1 rides a stationary bicycle 90-120 minutes. The pace is sustainable throughout the period.
      Total for the week: ~5 hours
    • Group 2 rides 20-30 seconds at their maximum pace- outside of their comfort zone. Then they rest for 3-4 minutes. Rinse & repeat 4-6 times for a total of 2-3 minutes of exercise.
      Total for the week: ~6-9 minutes

    After two weeks, both groups showed identical increases in endurance and capacity, as measured by time trials and biopsies. This came after lots of tests making rats swim under similar endurance splits followed by dissection, and has been followed up with numerous studies on humans.

    HIIT is the ultimate response to “I really want to get in shape but just don’t have time”

    Despite quite a bit of compelling evidence I personally don’t do HIIT. A few reasons why:

    • Fewer calories burned in HIIT – although that’s low on my list
    • Greater chance of injury – although probably small
    • I suck at it – but likely everyone feels that way.
    • I enjoy a long cardio workout and I simply don’t enjoy HIIT. I quite enjoy the rhythm of doing an hour of cardio, sweating through my clothing and feeling strong at the end.
    • I love to cheat and I’m really good at it. When I’ve tried intervals I end up simply doing a slightly increased pace for much, much less time – which is WORSE than the extended cardio session.
    • The first goal of exercise is really not to die and HIIT makes me feel like I’m going to die, which, if you’ve read my first blog in this series, motivated me to start a path to fitness.

    Finding a balance between your comfort level, time, and fitness goals is key to a sustainable health program. Science gives you the facts, and if you have the facts you can make informed decisions to put yourself somewhere on the scale from sedentary to torture.

    Would you endure 10 minutes of pain in the name of science?

     

    References:

    1. Coronary Heart-Disease and Physical Activity of Work
    2. A history of physical activity, cardiovascular health and longevity: the scientific contributions of Jeremy N Morris, DSc, DPH, FRCP.
    3. Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans
    4. Is high-intensity interval training a time-efficient exercise strategy to improve health and fitness?

    JD Portrait 1

    Jay Diamond is the founder of Reason4Reason – a skeptical activist group based in the San Francisco bay area. He holds dual masters degrees in engineering and business and has managed both startup companies and hundred-million-dollar programs for Fortune 50 companies. Growing up in Canada, he performed magic, studied science, and became aware of the skeptical movement. Jay has lectured around the world on science & technology, business, and skepticism. 

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  • Article by: Jay Diamond

    • Anna Y

      Wow, I think I would actually enjoy HIIT, if I could only figure out how to do it safely (I’m a clutz and have a bad habit of injuring myself during exercise).

      I think as far as enjoyment of physical activity goes, I’m the exact opposite of you. I cannot even explain how much I hate prolonged cardio activity. I tire quickly at any rhythm and it almost doesn’t matter how low I set it. Even before I get tired, the whole thing feels like a mindnumbing, boring, physically painful slog — some activities, like walking and biking are better than others, like running, but the difference isn’t great.

      On the other hand, short bursts of intense effort feel good to me, even if they also hurt and end in exhaustion. I’d have been a fan of wind sprints if the periods between the sprints involved complete rest, not just going slower.

      Less calories burned is kind of a bummer, but maintaining cardio fitness seems like a bigger benefit. Besides, the more fit I am, the less horrible prolonged cardio feels, even if it never feels good, so maybe riding the bike to the office will feel like less of a chore than it does now.

      • Jay Diamond

        Lucky you!

        I often use a personal trainer to verify that I’m doing new activities in a safe & effective manner. Remember to ask lots of questions – there are lots of untrained trainers out there…

        >> maintaining cardio fitness
        >> seems like a bigger benefit
        Agreed – plus if you make a habit out of it, eventually the calories will take care of themselves…

    • I am shocked that we only recently discovered this out too. I love the study you quoted about the stress vs social and sitting vs stairs on the double-deck bus. I know several people who think they “won” in the work department because they gave up their lower-paid part time jobs that involved them running around all day for a sit-down full-time better paid job. I look at them after a year and see how much more of them there is. They have traded the pay for a shorter life (and probably an physically unhappy one)

      I don’t know about the HIIT information, sounds like it might work. I have been trying to walk a lot more and really enjoy listening to podcasts and seeing the neighborhood (and who can knock this awesome CA weather we are having here in January!) so I like the low impact better. I have been trying to add short bursts of running until I could not stand it to the walks. I suppose this is my own version of HIIT. Hopefully the bursts of running will become farther and I will see more of an improvement in my clothing.

      • Jay Diamond

        Per my last blog entry “The Anti-Secret”, do what works for you… if it’s walking then walk. If its curling then curl… but DO SOMETHING and build those positive habits.

        • Preeva Tramiel

          ok, I’m trying

    • Preeva Tramiel

      Would I do this Ten minutes of pain? Hell Yes!
      You want tot hear how it goes?

      • Jay Diamond

        Hell yes… :)

        • Preeva Tramiel

          I’ve tried to tell you how my HIIT workout went Sunday morning. The first time, right after the workout, i was shaking too hard to type properly.
          I ran up and down the stairs in my house as fast as I could, stopped to briefly wheeze, then did it again and again, lungs on fire and quads like cement, until 10 minutes had passed.

          Good times–when my breathing sounds like a Bob Dylan harmonica solo, i know i’ve exceeded the limits of good sense.

          • Jay Diamond

            Preeva – please don’t DIE… Hopefully you read my disclaimer (that I’m not a physician and you should seek the advise of one before pushing yourself to the limits) and my other disclaimer (that I don’t personally do HIIT).

            Outside of that, you’ll need to record the Dylan solo and play it for me sometime… ;)