Getting in shape is important but with the constant pressure of jobs and family and keeping up with your Netflix queue it is easy to fall behind. One of the most frequently cited reasons for people not getting enough exercise is that they just don’t have the time. Between 8 hours a day working, plus whatever commute you subject yourself to, it is easy to understand why a person wouldn’t want to devote a chunk of their leisure time to sweating it out on a treadmill. But what if I told you that you could get reasonably fit by only working out for a total of 7 minutes each week? I am not talking about some sleazy, ineffective exercise program either. Recent scientific research has begun to show that short bouts of high-intensity interval training (HIT) might be comparable to long slogs at the gym.

Learning from a Legend

When he was training to become the first person to break the 4-minute barrier for the mile, Roger Bannister was also a medical student with clinic duties to attend to. He had to get his training taken care of during his lunch break every day so he relied on sets of 60 second sprints followed by 2 minutes of rest. Nowadays if you ask any professional athlete they will tell you that interval training is probably as important to their routine as the days when they spend all afternoon at the track. But what if brief bouts of high-intensity exercise make up your entire workout routine? Surely you won’t see the same benefits.

 HIT the Track

Actually, according to a number of recent studies comparing long, slow, aerobic exercise with HIT, the effect might be shockingly similar. Physiologist Martin Gibala has found that 6 sessions over HIT over a 2 week period (consisting of cycling as hard as possible for 30 seconds followed by 4 minutes of rest, repeated 4 to 6 times)can lead to significant improvement in endurance performance as well as skeletal strength in groups of healthy participants.  Taking things one step further, Gibala has suggested that low-volume HIT can also lead to health benefits that are on par with or even slightly superior to traditional exercise regimes, and that these benefits are true for both health individuals and those with a history of disease.

 How Does it Work?

While HIT may offer the same outcomes as traditional, more time-intensive exercise, the mechanism through which people acquire those gains is different. Studies comparing the two forms of exercise have indicated that engaging in longer, lower intensity exercise leads to gains in performance by strengthening  the heart, allowing it to pump more blood. By contrast, HIT leads to better performance by strengthening the muscles themselves, allowing them to contract with more power and manage lactic acid build up more effectively. Likewise, the similarities in fat burned by participants in the research were due to the excessive energy demands of the low intensity workouts and the increased muscle mass in the HIT participants. It is important to consider that both a healthy heart and healthy muscles are important for overall well-being. These results suggest that while you might be able to get the benefits of exercise in less time, you are better of throwing in a long run every now and then.

 What’s the Catch?

This all seems a little too good to be true. A total of 7 minutes of exercise each week can lead to weight loss and improved endurance at levels comparable to several hours of running? Well, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. High-intensity exercise is grueling. It may only last for 30 seconds but during that time you are likely to reevaluate why you wanted to get healthy in the first place. To get the appropriate gains, you have to go as hard as you possibly can during each interval. For that reason HIT can be dangerous for people who are new to exercising or have a history of cardiovascular problems. Consult with your doctor before undertaking any HIT program and use your common sense. For some people it may be a safer option (and a whole lot more fun) to just got for a run around a nearby lake.