Health experts recommend that we get 150 minutes of exercise per week. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to do that. Not least because my gym membership was taken away because I failed to maintain the minimum number of visits. Sigh.
But last month it was claimed we could get fitter by exercising for just three or four minutes a week. This miracle workout known as HIT, (high-intensity training) sheds fat twice as fast as an average gym session.
It improves your aerobic and anaerobic capacity (in other words, your stamina and your strength), reduces the amount of sugar in your blood stream and releases fatty acids that can then be burned off by your muscles.
In short, HIT burns fat fast and causes your body to continue burning fat for hours after you’ve worked out. One form of HIT was developed in the Nineties by Dr Izumi Tabata, a former researcher at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo.
His four-minute ‘Tabata’ workout sounds easy enough on paper: eight 20-second bursts of activity with a ten-second rest between each — meaning less than four minutes of exercise in total. I decided to try it for two weeks to see just how hard it could be. My normal fitness regime involves hurrying a lot — rushing for trains and panting to get to nursery before it shuts in the evening. It’s not exercising as such.
My HIT workout would involve four sets of squats, press-ups, lunges and ‘the plank’ (basically placing your elbows and forearms on the floor, balancing on your toes and keeping the rest of your body off the ground in line with your shoulders and hips) in quick succession. The first 20-second set of fast squats was easy enough, but I was breathless when I reached the ten-second rest period.
By the middle of the second set, I was finding it hard to maintain my pace; during the third bout I was not squatting as low as I should as my thighs were burning, my chest was pounding and sweat dripped from my brow. I stared at the stopwatch willing the seconds to tick by faster as I grimaced through the last few squats in my fourth set, my legs trembling.
Next came the press-ups. During the second set, my arms collapsed and I lay face-down on the mat panting for breath, desperately trying to recover. I couldn’t, so it was on to the lunges, then four bursts of the plank position.
Counting the rest periods, my first training session lasted almost eight minutes, and they were some of the longest of my life.
It was undoubtedly the hardest and most intense workout I’d ever done. My legs felt like jelly, my arms so weak I couldn’t even hold open the gym door on the way out. I wasn’t so much breathing as wheezing. That night my muscles slowly seized up and the next day everything ached. It hurt to stretch my arms and walk up and down the stairs. I felt like I’d aged 40 years.
My next session, three days later, featured squats, dips and stomach crunches. My whole body resisted and every move hurt, but I was amazed to find I had improved upon my last session. When I was finished, I lay flat out on the mat groaning with relief.
I quickly started to notice the benefits: I slept better and felt more alert during the day, and because the routine was so short, I could easily fit it in. And I noticed Tabata didn’t fuel my appetite like swimming or running. As you progress, the training gets harder. Weights are added and in my second week, I was sprinting up hills instead of on the flat. Every workout was agonising and brutal.
At the end of two weeks, my arms were better defined, my chest looked and felt more taut, and my legs felt toned. I haven’t lost my muffin top but I’ve shed 2lb and 2 ½cm from around my waist. Tabata is the hardest workout I’ve tried, but it was worth every excruciating second. Finding an hour to exercise is a chore, but everybody can find a few minutes — and everybody should.
Tabata isn’t yet available in South Africa, to the best of our knowledge, but those gym people always have their eyes out for the next big thing, so we’re sure it won’t be long before we can try Tabata for ourselves. Well not me, obviously. I no longer have a gym membership…
Written by Alison Tyler, this article originally appeared in the Daily Mail