It’s a bit like carbon footprint offsetting: carefully calculating how best to neutralise the calorie intake of the sunny days of summer holiday over-indulgence? The cold glasses of delicious white wine, the bottles of rose, glasses of cool beer and irresistible baguettes of bread and butter laden croissants. The unfamiliar desserts you simply have to try, finished off by just one more gin and tonic as evening draws in and the sun sets over whichever sea, city or landscape you are gazing upon. It is the regularly repeated story of every regretful autumn - the annoying weight gain that was so delightfully easy to put on and proves so very hard to lose afterwards.
But I think I have found the solution. What if you could spend a mere 3 minutes a day - literally - to get effectively ‘food carbon neutral’?
I have been researching the latest science on HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) for my new book on the brain (Published this November - just in time to make a perfect Christmas present for just about everybody!). In theory HIIT is just exactly my sort of exercise: short bursts of intense activity alternating with longer intervals at a more manageable and less intense speed. 30 minutes is the usual recommended amount of time and you can do specific classes in the gym, or adapt it to your usual activity schedule, whether that’s walking, running, rowing or bicycling. But in practise it’s fairly grim and exhausting frankly, and it seemed to me when I tried a couple of classes that unless you are extremely fit, and don’t suffer from high blood pressure or cardiac issues, most of them (walking was OK) could cause an immediate heart attack and weren’t nice to do at all, however brief the time they took.
My version of HIIT, which is admittedly less strenuous than most people’s, involves similarly short bursts of intense exercise - for 20 seconds at a time followed by a 10 second rest, repeated 5 times. Simple - and in total shouldn’t take up much more than a few short minutes. Lose weight, burn off some fat and, according to research in the Journal of Sports Science, stimulate your human growth hormone levels, increasing them by 450%. What’s not to like? (but still best to double check with your doctor before you start).
I do see the logic of interspersing fast-paced maximum-effort intervals of exercise with slower recovery periods. I just don’t like doing it much. In a study at the Mayo clinic, over 65s who started a HIIT regime saw age-related deterioration in muscle cells reduced, and research published in ‘Cell Metabolism’ found levels of mitochondria, the cells energy powerhouses, increased considerably after a three month HIIT programme. There was 49% more mitochondrial capacity in younger participants, and a 69% increase in older people. (Sreekuman Nair et al). HIIT training has also been found to be a better way to combat central obesity.
I am on holiday at the moment, and was mulling over my new ‘Reboot Your Brain’ exercise section while swimming in the sea, when it occurred to me that water must be the bearable HIIT answer. And reader, it definitely is. In water HIIT is a totally different experience.
Water creates a perfect resistance and takes the heat out of the intensity of your movements. It’s very nearly a doddle. I did my usual twenty minute swim at a reasonable rate, and then stopped and tried running on the spot, really fast and hard, and my heart rate went rapidly up. I could almost feel the oxygen levels in my blood increasing. I timed 30 seconds precisely, swam calmly for the ten seconds and then did it all over again. And again, until 5 minutes had passed and I was fairly exhausted. An intense body workout- without the sweat, and without having to wash my hair. Who could ask for more? And that was officially more calories burned than the spritzer waiting for me when I got back to shore; not only boosting the BDNF levels in my brain, but leaving me pretty much guilt free at the thought of the long and relaxing lunch ahead of me.
There are caveats here though. Although swimming keeps your muscles toned and your joints supple, bear in mind that anything you do in water affects your heart. Blood vessels immediately narrow, which conserves the body’s heat, but the process sends additional blood to the chest, stressing your heart. Your body has to work much harder in the water compared to when you are out of it and it’s difficult to tell quite how hard because of the coolness of the water temperature. The deeper you are the harder still it has to work.
So if you are over 70, (because most of us have some sort of heart issues by then) and definitely if you have a serious heart condition of any kind, perhaps don’t do this one – or if you want to, check it out with your doctor first. The best water temperature for your heart is to swim is water between 79-91F/26-33C apparently. Pools that are hotter than that can cause your blood pressure to drop leaving you feeling faint; icy cold water may trigger irregular heart rhythms. So, like the three bears and Goldilocks, you have to find your ‘just right’. Please be careful.
For many of us though, Water HIIT could be the answer. Seek out any swimming pool, at home or abroad, and give it a go. Lakes and the sea work equally well.
Hopefully, you will thank me in October!
My Mini HIIT circuit
This can be applied to any cardiovascular activity – walking/cycling/rowing/running. Swimming. Not advised if you have heart problems. Check with your doctor to minimise risk of any injury.
Choose your activity and start by warming up with five minutes of light exertion.
Standing tall, circle your arms backwards, one after the other for 30 seconds.
Then up the intensity of your chosen activity and really go for it for 30 seconds.
Rest for ten seconds
Do another 30 seconds at the higher intensity
Rest for ten seconds
Do another 20-30 seconds at high speed
Rest for ten seconds, repeat twice more.
Then cool down
That’s it. All done.
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My book - Reboot Your Health - is available now.
Make this year the year you ‘Reboot Your Health’.
You have only got one body. If you don’t take care of it, who else is going to?
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health.
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