London - There is welcome news for anyone who’s resolved to get fit in the New Year. Scientists claim we don’t have to spend hours every week slogging in the gym or jogging around a park in all weathers, along with the other January resolution makers.
Instead, they advocate a pioneering new quick fitness regime that makes remarkable claims: just a few 30-second bursts of intense exercise, amounting to only three minutes a week, could deliver the health and weight-loss benefits of hours of lengthy, conventional regimes.
This may revolutionise our ability to stick to New Year fitness resolutions, which only one in five of us manage to keep for more than a few weeks. A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found the main reason we break resolutions is that our plans are over-ambitious: we set the bar too high in a hopelessly optimistic burst of post-Christmas enthusiasm.
But this new exercise regime lowers that bar significantly. Scientists at the universities of Nottingham, Birmingham and Bath say the secret is to commit yourself to three short bursts of highly intense exercise for 30 seconds each, with short rest periods between, in less than five minutes.
They claim early results are ground-breaking and may lead to conventional medical textbooks on exercise being torn up. Instead of sweating for hours, scientists say we should hurl ourselves around on an exercise bike or rowing machine — or even just run rapidly up and down the stairs at home.
After half a minute of wild exertion, we can collapse red-faced for 60 seconds, then do it all again. Three bouts like that means your exercise requirement for that session is sorted.
Late last year, the scientific team behind this regime launched a large-scale trial involving 300 volunteers to fully test their system. It could be just the tonic for couch-potato Britain.
For despite constant nagging from government and health professionals, the vast majority of us still don’t follow the official NHS advice to do at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise five times a week, plus two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercise such as weight-training, push-ups or heavy gardening.
More than 60 percent of men and 70 percent of women admit that they don’t manage that. Lack of time is our most common excuse.
As a result, millions of Britons suffer early death and unnecessary disability due to lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
But the answer for many could be quick and simple.
The ongoing study is led by leading exercise expert Jamie Timmons, a professor of systems biology. The team call their system High Intensity Impact Training (HIIT).
So far, their tests on hundreds of unfit middle-aged volunteers in Britain and Canada over the past eight years have shown those three minutes of exercise a week deliver the same significant health improvements as can be achieved through hours in the gym or on the running track.
But scientists do not yet entirely understand why the short-burst exercise regime so profoundly boosts volunteers’ stamina and the fitness of their lungs, heart and blood vessels.
“The truthful answer is we do not fully understand this,” says Professor Timmons. “But a growing body of independent research shows this is the case and that the textbook explanation of the science of exercise requires revision.”
As for weight loss, the results from conventional long hours of exercise regimes often prove disappointing.
Typically, exercisers get themselves into trouble by eating more than they do normally because strenuous gym sessions leave them ravenous.
Brief, high-intensity exercise does not stimulate appetite as much, because it demands far less energy expenditure, so participants in the trial don’t suffer the same cravings.
What’s more, it appears to do something even more beneficial, according to Professor Timmons.
“We have found that people feel their appetites are suppressed,” he says. “We should have the final evidence for this next year.”
The regime should also raise people’s metabolic rates after they stop exercising, as it builds muscle — and this tissue makes metabolisms run faster. In turn, this stimulates the breakdown of fat and burns calories.
Timmons’ team also speculates that high-intensity training uses far more muscle tissue than aerobic exercise.
They say: “Cycling really vigorously uses not just the leg muscles, but also the upper body including arms and shoulders, so 80 percent of the body’s muscle cells can be activated, compared to 20 to 40 percent for walking or moderate intensity jogging or cycling.” It will be about two years, though, before the British scientists publish their full findings as part of a Europe-wide study. In the meantime, they point out: ‘You don’t need a scientific explanation to enjoy the benefits.’
The team’s theories about short-burst exercise are increasingly supported by other research.
Australian scientists last June found sprint training for 60 minutes a week is as effective in burning male body fat as jogging for seven hours per week.
The study, led by Steve Boutcher at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, recruited 50 overweight men for short, high-intensity cycle sprints.
They had to sprint for eight seconds on an exercise bike followed by 12 seconds’ recovery in a training cycle lasting 20 minutes and repeated three times a week over 12 weeks.
Boutcher reported in the Journal OfObesity that by the end, the volunteers, who were in their 20s, lost on average 4lb of abdominal fat and increased their muscle mass.
Importantly, they had also reduced fat around their liver, kidneys and other internal organs by 17 percent.
This is the fat most strongly linked with an increased risk for cardio- vascular disease.
“Other studies using aerobic exercise have found the amount of exercise needed to produce a similar decrease in visceral fat was about seven hoursper week for 14 weeks,” says Professor Boutcher.
He believes he has found a crucial clue as to why high-intensity regimes may work. Rapid bursts of muscle movement appear to flood the blood with hormones called catecholamines.
These break down fat stores in the body, and burn them up as energy. By comparison, conventional moderate exercise such as cycling for 40 minutes does not raise the blood-levels of catecholamines much at all.
And the professor has discovered another trick for raising levels of these catecholamine hormones in the blood: drink green tea after high-intensity exercise. “The tea stops the hormones from being degraded, so they keep burning fat for longer,” he says.
Tests on women have found fat-loss increases significantly if they drink the tea after exercising.
Three minutes of exercise and a cup of tea to follow?
Has there ever been such an appealing New Year exercise regime?
1. Warm up for a couple of minutes, picking up your exercise to a moderate pace, making sure you stretch your muscles.
2. Monitoring your time, exercise at 80 or 90 percent of flat-out for 30 seconds without stopping. This will make you breathless.
3. Rest for up to a minute.
4. Repeat three times.
5. Carry out the routine at least twice a week.