It’s an ongoing debate. Is interval training or steady-state, moderate-intensity exercise better for weight loss and fat loss? High-intensity interval training wins points for being shorter in duration. Studies show you can get cardiovascular benefits from high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions as short as 10 minutes. The key to getting results from HIIT training is intensity. You can’t exercise at a leisurely pace for 10 minutes and expect to burn a lot of fat.
Although 10 minutes of intense intervals is enough to offer benefits, most people do high-intensity training sessions that last around 20 minutes. If you extend your sessions beyond 30 minutes, the fatigue factor sets in and you may not be able to muster up the same intensity. But, 20 to 30 minutes is still a time-savings when you compare it to 40 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, like cycling, brisk walking, or jogging. But, if you’re trying to lose weight, which form of training boosts your odds of success the most?
In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers looked at how moderate-intensity exercise stands up to high-intensity interval training for weight loss. They looked back at studies comparing the two forms of training. After analyzing data from numerous studies and tabulating the results, interval training came out ahead in terms of weight loss. In fact, interval training was linked with 28.5% greater weight loss overall relative to moderate-intensity training.
What they didn’t find was a significant difference in fat loss. Reduction in body fat between the two groups was similar. Of the various types of high-intensity interval training, sprint training, short periods of sprinting followed by recovery, was most effective for weight loss. Again, fat loss didn’t differ significantly between the two groups. Even if the degree of fat loss was similar, high-intensity interval workouts are shorter in duration and that’s a benefit for most people.
High-Intensity Interval Training for Weight Loss Maintenance
HIIT training may excel in another aspect of weight control. One of the most frustrating aspects of losing weight is gaining it back! Around 80% of people who lose 10% or more of their body weight pile It all back on and more. It’s a frustrating fact about weight loss! Your body reacts to significant weight loss with metabolic changes that make it easier to put back on the weight you lost.
But a study carried out by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that combining a reduced calorie diet with high-intensity interval training was more effective for preserving muscle mass and reducing weight regain after weight loss. One reason weight regain is easier after you lose it is you have less metabolically active muscle tissue to keep your metabolism primed. Plus, your body subtly alters how much you move to preserve energy without your awareness.
So, high-intensity interval training helps preserve muscle on a calorie-restricted diet and as Eric Plaisance, Ph.D., the lead researcher in the study points out, high-intensity interval training can accomplish a similar degree of weight loss in 20 minutes as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. For the time-strapped person, that’s important! Plus, it gives you a leg up on maintaining the weight you lose.
Other Benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training for Weight Control
One of the biggest roadblocks is getting people to exercise! Lack of time is one of the biggest reasons people give. High-intensity interval training solves that problem because you can cut workout time in half or even three-quarters and still get benefits.
Another reason people give for not wanting to exercise is the discomfort factor. It’s hard to push your body to the point that you huff and puff and the sweat rolls off of you. Surprisingly, research shows people prefer HIIT training to moderate-intensity exercise. Moderate-intensity exercise can be boring and monotonous. Although high-intensity interval training is more intense, you balance the intense intervals with recovery intervals and that breaks up the monotony.
In one study, researchers found that people perceived high-intensity interval training to be less strenuous and more enjoyable than moderate-intensity exercise. The study also found that subjects rated shorter intervals as less strenuous than longer intervals. In the study, they measured the rate of perceived exertion for intervals of 30, 60, and 120 seconds using a 1 to 1 active to rest structure. The participants perceived 30-second active intervals as being the most tolerable, even when they controlled for exercise intensity.
What about Cardiovascular Fitness:
One reason people do moderate-intensity exercise is to condition their heart and improve aerobic capacity. Research shows moderate-intensity, steady-state exercise can, over time, enhance V02 max, the maximal amount of oxygen the body can use during exercise. Better aerobic capacity increases exercise endurance and the ability to sustain exercise at a sub-maximal intensity. Yet, research shows high-intensity interval training improves both aerobic capacity and anaerobic capacity – and it may be better at boosting aerobic capacity than “classic,” steady-state cardiovascular exercises, like cycling or jogging. In one study, men who ran at a steady pace for 150 minutes weekly experienced less improvement in V02 max than those who did only 40 minutes weekly of high-intensity interval training. Plus, other studies show high-intensity training can boost V02 max faster than moderate-intensity exercise.
The Bottom Line
High-intensity exercise may help you lose more weight with less training. It also may help you preserve muscle tissue and maintain the weight you lose in response to lifestyle and diet changes. Plus, you won’t sacrifice cardiovascular gains. Studies show HIIT sessions can lead to greater improvements in V02 max with less time devoted to training. Keep these factors in mind when structuring your workouts. Make sure you’re taking enough recovery time between workouts. If you do high-intensity workouts, don’t do them more than two to three times per week.
- British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2019; bjsports-2018-099928 DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099928.
- Science Daily. “Interval training may shed more pounds than continuous moderate intensity workout”
- UAB News. “Study finds dieting and high-intensity exercise helpful in reducing the risk of weight regain”
- American Council on Exercise. “Steady State Vs. Interval Training: Which One is Best for Your Clients?”
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