Even if you eat “by the book” most of the time, chances are you eat an occasional cheat meal. This meal is likely quite different from the standard, clean-eating fare you normally chow down on. Rather than biting into salmon and a side of broccoli, for a cheat meal you might devour an order of French fries or a pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. Of course, you could feel a smidgeon of guilt after swallowing that last bite of greasy pizza, but there’s a way to feel less guilty. Work out beforehand!
A new study shows you can lessen the impact of that fatty meal by doing a vigorous workout before eating that first bite of pizza. Research has already shown that working out before a high-fat meal can mitigate the negative effects of overdosing on fat, but until now researchers didn’t know what type of exercise works best. The answer seems to be high-intensity, interval-style exercise.
One problem with eating a high-fat meal is it causes blood vessels to transiently “misbehave.” Ideally, you want your blood vessels to open up smoothly to allow blood to flow to the cells and tissues that need it. When they don’t, it’s called “endothelial dysfunction.” Endothelial dysfunction is a problem strongly linked with heart disease and scary things like heart attacks and strokes. If you can get your blood vessels to behave better, you lower your risk for future blood vessels damage and heart disease. One reason exercise reduces the risk for heart disease is because it improves endothelial or blood vessel function.
Moderate versus High-Intensity Interval Training Exercise for Blood Vessel Health
Researchers at the University of Exeter in the U.K, looked at the impact moderate-intensity and high-intensity exercise had on endothelial function in healthy adolescents. The participants in the study were asked to perform moderate or high-intensity exercise before consuming a fatty milkshake. This study showed 25 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise before the fatty treat was enough to keep blood vessels functioning normally, but only 8 minutes of high-intensity, interval exercise was even MORE effective. Not only did a HIIT workout prevent adverse changes in blood vessel function, it actually IMPROVED how blood vessels behaved. So, before your next cheat meal, make time for a quickie high-intensity interval workout.
Other Benefits of Working Out HIIT Style
When you eat a cheat meal, a little voice in the back of your head tells you that the pizza you’re eating could end up on your hips or tummy. HIIT training lowers your risk for that too. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed healthy male adults who participated in high-intensity interval training had lower body fat percentages than men who didn’t and that fat oxidation was greater in those who did intense exercise versus those who exercised less intensely.
The greater degree of fat oxidation in response to high-intensity exercise is at least partially due to the after-burn effect of HIIT training, also known as EPOC. (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) In other words, your body stays in overdrive longer because you’ve stressed it more. When it’s in overdrive, it burns more calories for hours, even after you finish. During the recovery period, your body works harder to restore homeostasis so you breathe harder to compensate for the oxygen deficit and work harder to replace fuel stores, rebalance hormones and repair cellular damage. This all takes energy and some of that energy comes from oxidizing fat stores as a fuel source. That means more calories burned during the recovery period. Pretty sweet, huh?
How can you tap into the waist-trimming, heart healthy benefits of HIIT training? Before your next cheat meal, do a short (or longer) high-intensity interval session to tap into the after-burn. Even as you’re eating that high calorie meal, your metabolism will rev up to help you burn off the extra energy you’re taking in. Even when you have the power of HIIT training on your side, don’t eat those cheat meals too often. Even high-intensity exercise can’t compensate for a poor diet.
HIIT Training: Is It Better for Your Heart than Moderate-Intensity Exercise?
High-intensity interval training gets your heart pumping faster than moderate-intensity exercise, and ultimately it may be better for your heart. A number of studies show high-intensity exercise leads to greater improvements in V02 max, a measure of aerobic capacity, than moderate-intensity workouts. Some studies also show vigorous workouts lower blood pressure more than exercise of moderate intensity. Both forms of exercise improve insulin sensitivity, thereby improving overall metabolic health.
The Bottom Line
Now you have another reason to do HIIT training and to do a quick session before a cheat meal. A satisfying aspect of high-intensity interval training is how little time it takes. Once it’s done, you can spend the rest of your workout time building strength and lean body mass with weights. If you vary the exercises you do, HIIT training places less repetitive stress on your muscles, joints and tendons than long periods of moderate-intensity exercise like running or cycling. Plus, you’re less likely to get bored.
Due to its short duration, HIIT training is less catabolic, so you don’t break down the lean muscle mass you’re working hard to maintain, and unless you do it every day, your risk of overtraining is lower than when you do hours of moderate-intensity cardio. High-intensity interval training may also help you shed more visceral abdominal fat, the kind most closely linked with heart disease.
Cheat meal or not – high-intensity interval training has benefits. Make sure it’s part of your fitness training.
International Journal of Obesity. March 2001, Volume 25, Number 3, Pages 332-339.
Preventive Cardiology. “Aerobic interval training reduces blood pressure and improves myocardial function in hypertensive patients” (2011)
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Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Apr;32(4):684-91. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803781. Epub 2008 Jan 15.
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