Health Benefits from High Intensity Interval Training

What is High-intensity Interval Training?

High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT or HIT) is training at the upper end of the range where your body can provide energy from the oxygen you breathe. This effort is hard to sustain, so HIIT adds low-intensity or rest periods between the high-intensity periods. The high-intensity periods should be hard enough to leave you breathless — difficult to say more than a few words — but the pace should be one you can sustain for a minute or more. In general, the target heartbeat range is 85-100% of maximum heart rate, although, for shorter intervals, it’s challenging to reach that rate during the initial repetitions.

The categories of physical activity by VO2max percentage, a measure of cardio-respiratory fitness

Some famous examples of HIIT workouts are:

  • The Tabata Protocol: Published by Dr. Tabata in 1996, this protocol popularized HIIT training in the eight repetitions of 20 seconds maximal effort interspersed with 10 seconds of rest.
  • The 4×4 Workout: This workout is recommended by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. It starts with 10 minutes warm-up of moderate jogging, followed by four repetitions of 1-2 minutes of high-intensity running and then 3 minutes of jogging. Here’s a video explaining it, complete with a Norwegian accent.

Different exercises can be used for HIIT, including running, cycling, jumping jacks, or burpees. Generally, any activity that allows for intense effort can be used for HIIT.

Four Ways HIIT Improves Fitness

To allow increased performance at near the maximum sustainable rate, HIIT improves each step of how the body converts oxygen to energy:

1. Improved Lung Capacity

The first step to increasing oxygen use is to increase lung capacity, and indeed, HIIT can improve maximum inspiratory pressure, or the ability of the lungs to pull in air, by over 40%1.

2. Improved Heart Capacity

To get more energy from the oxygen you breathe, HIIT increases the maximal cardiac capacity, which is the ability of your heart to pump blood2.

3. Increased Capillary Density

HIIT also increases the capillary density to get more oxygen to the muscles that use it. The capillaries are the delicate blood vessels that deliver oxygen to your cells as the blood transfers from arteries from the heart to veins going back to the heart3.

4. Increased Mitochondria

Once your body’s cells have oxygen, they convert it to energy using mitochondria, small energy-producing structures inside cells.  The more HIIT you do, the more mitochondria your cells create.  The more mitochondria your cells have, the more energy they can produce and the more work your body can do4.

Six Benefits of HIIT

Some benefits of HIIT follow from its fitness effects listed above, but some come from other aspects of HIIT:

1. Improved Cardio-respiratory Fitness

Having the energy to do the activities you want is vital to health, and HIIT can significantly boost cardio-respiratory fitness, a critical factor in how much energy you have. Cardio-respiratory fitness is often measured by your VO₂max, which indicates the maximum amount of oxygen you can process for energy. Training in HIIT for six weeks can increase VO₂max (a measure of cardio-respiratory fitness, which gives the maximum rate your body can use oxygen during exercise) by 10%5.

2. Fat loss

By raising your resting metabolic rate more than resistance exercise or AE, HIIT helps metabolize fat6. Some studies have shown fat reductions from HIIT activity alone7.

3. Time Efficient

Aerobic Exercise (AE) also improves cardio-respiratory fitness. Still, the gains from HIIT are available with less total time exercising, especially if you only count the high-intensity effort time and not the lower-intensity rest periods. In general, a HIIT workout, including the rest intervals, takes about half as long as AE that would provide a similar cardio-respiratory boost8.

4. Lower Blood Pressure

Similar to AE, HIIT can lower blood pressure by up to 10 points after eight weeks of practice9, which is as much as the effect of common blood pressure treatment medications10.

5. Reduced Insulin Resistance

The primary cause of Type 2 Diabetes is insulin resistance, and HIIT has been shown to have a significant impact in reducing insulin resistance 11.

Signs of insulin resistance are fasting glucose level or hemoglobin A1C (HbA1C)12, which are standard blood tests. HIIT was found to reduce blood sugar by nearly one mmol/l and HbA1C by about .2%.

6. Longer life

Even for people already doing AE, the health benefits from adding HIIT to your weekly exercise routine can add years to your life. A 2020 Norwegian study showed that adding just two sessions of 4×4 HIIT reduced all-cause mortality by almost 50% compared with people only doing AE13. Even starting from 50 years old, that could add seven years of life.

What are the best exercises for HIIT?

The best exercise is the one you can do at high intensity, and you like. Brisk walking is probably not difficult enough to reach high-intensity, but good options are running, cycling, or swimming. Fitness exercises like jumping rope, body squats, or burpees can also be good choices.

How much HIIT should I do?

A good target is about two 4×4 workouts per week. This is enough to provide the longevity benefits above, and when done consistently, will provide a steady improvement in cardio-respiratory fitness.

With this base of 2 HIIT workouts per week, the cardiorespiratory benefits of HIIT improve linearly by the product of the total amount of time exercised by the percentage of your maximum effort in watts14. While the percent of your watt max is a little lower than the percentage of your heart rate maximum (HRmax), it’s a good guideline for how many weeks of HIIT are required to reach a particular VO2max improvement. Fourteen months of two 4×4 workouts/week could be enough to increase VO2max by about 10%. If you doubled the repetitions from 4 to 8 (an 8×4 workout), the same gain of 10% could be achieved in 7 months.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How much does skipping some HIIT reduce fitness?

Detraining or stopping HIIT for two weeks or more has a significant impact on cardiorespiratory fitness. A two-week break could reduce VO2max by 4%15, which would take over 5 hours of high-intensity effort (not including rest intervals) to recover or half a year of two 4×4 sessions per week. Keeping up training at one session per week seems enough to maintain cardiorespiratory benefits. However, endurance may drop16.

2. Does playing sports count as HIIT?

Mostly, yes. While some sports, like golf, don’t have enough intensity, racquet sports or sports where you compete directly with an opponent like soccer or basketball give similar benefits to HIIT. Studies on sports participants find that racquet sports and similar have the highest reductions in all-cause mortality17.

3. How much HIIT is too much?

So HIIT seems great, right? But, you can get too much of a good thing. As with other physical activities, there is a U-shaped curve of the benefits, where benefits reverse at high levels due to overtraining. After 160 minutes of HIIT effort time a week, performance flatlines, glucose intolerance starts to increase, and mitochondrial energy production decreases. Direct analysis of mitochondria extracted from thigh muscle showed that while the total amount of mitochondria was continuing to grow during the overtraining, but the amount of energy production per mitochondria dropped by 40%18.

  1. Effects of high-intensity interval training on pulmonary function
  2. Effect of interval versus continuous training on cardiorespiratory and mitochondrial functions: relationship to aerobic performance improvements in sedentary subjects | American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology
  3. Effect of interval versus continuous training on cardiorespiratory and mitochondrial functions: relationship to aerobic performance improvements in sedentary subjects | American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology
  4. Training-Induced Changes in Mitochondrial Content and Respiratory Function in Human Skeletal Muscle
  5. High-intensity interval training increases SIRT1 activity in human skeletal muscle
  6. The acute effect of exercise modality and nutrition manipulations on post-exercise resting energy expenditure and respiratory exchange ratio in women: a randomized trial
  7. The effect of high-intensity intermittent exercise on body composition of overweight young males
  8. The Effect of Low Volume Interval Training on Resting Blood Pressure in Pre-hypertensive Subjects: A Preliminary Study.
  9. The Effect of Low Volume Interval Training on Resting Blood Pressure in Pre-hypertensive Subjects: A Preliminary Study
  10. Blood pressure-lowering efficacy of beta‐1 selective beta-blockers for primary hypertension
  11. The effects of high-intensity interval training on glucose regulation and insulin resistance: a meta-analysis
  12. Insulin Resistance
  13. Effect of exercise training for five years on all-cause mortality in older adults—the Generation 100 study: randomized controlled trial
  14. Training-Induced Changes in Mitochondrial Content and Respiratory Function in Human Skeletal Muscle
  15. Full article: Two weeks of detraining reduces cardiopulmonary function and muscular fitness in endurance athletes
  16. Effects of detraining on endurance capacity and metabolic changes during prolonged exhaustive exercise | Journal of Applied Physiology
  17. Various Leisure-Time Physical Activities Associated With Widely Divergent Life Expectancies: The Copenhagen City Heart Study
  18. Excessive exercise training causes mitochondrial functional impairment and decreases glucose tolerance in healthy volunteers
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