The Health Benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

An excerpt from Dr Rhonda Patrick’s podcast on the science and practicalities of integrating vigorous intensity exercise, such as HIIT, into our daily routines.

Published: July 6th, 2024 | By: Tom Newby | Read Time: 4 mins


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What is HIIT?

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a form of exercise that alternates between short bursts of intense activity and periods of rest or lower-intensity exercise. Typically, these high-intensity periods last anywhere from 20 seconds to a few minutes and are followed by a recovery period of similar duration. HIIT workouts are known for their efficiency, providing significant health benefits in a shorter time compared to traditional steady-state cardio. The high-intensity intervals can involve various activities such as sprinting, cycling, or bodyweight exercises, making HIIT a versatile and adaptable workout method.

What’s does this article cover?

Dr Rhonda Patrick delves into the science and practicalities of integrating vigorous intensity exercise, such as HIIT, into our daily routines. She emphasises the numerous benefits of such exercise on quality of life, brain function, and longevity. In this summary, I have extracted some of the most compelling and positive points from her podcast.

Please note that this is my interpretation of the content from Rhonda Patrick’s podcast. As such, I do not claim credit for the original work, and this summary is presented in a straightforward manner (with lots of bullet points!) and some technical terminology. Nonetheless, I encourage you to explore it as there are many advantages of incorporating vigorous exercise into your routine. To form your own opinion about her work, you can listen directly to the podcast yourself [here].

Lastly, as with any vigorous exercise, HIIT can lead to injury if not undertaken with proper preparation or care. Please consult a professional before starting any new exercise regimen.

Key points from the podcast:

  • Heart Aging: As we age, our heart becomes smaller and stiffer, reducing exercise capacity and increasing cardiac risk. Vigorous exercise can reverse heart aging, as demonstrated by a study where a two-year exercise intervention in 50-year-olds made their hearts resemble those of 30-year-olds.
  • VO2 Max & Longevity: VO2max is a critical measure of cardiorespiratory fitness linked directly to longevity.
    A higher VO2max correlates with longer life expectancy, with significant improvements seen even when moving from below-average to above-average VO2max. Studies indicate that there is no upper limit to the longevity benefits of high VO2max.
    HIIT combines periods of high-intensity exercise (Zones 3 to 5) with recovery periods, improving both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. It is particularly effective in increasing VO2max.
  • Biochemical Benefits: During intense exercise, muscles produce compounds like lactate and myokines which travel throughout the body, potentially initiating anti-cancer mechanisms and promoting brain health by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)
    BDNF is a crucial protein for promoting neuron or nerve cell growth, enhancing neuro-plasticity, and protecting against damage. It supports learning, memory, and cognitive function while also playing a role in mood regulation.
    Muscles also absorb harmful compounds, improving mental health and reducing neurodegenerative disease risk.
  • Glucose Control: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) improves glucose (blood sugar) control and insulin sensitivity more effectively than moderate intensity exercise, potentially improving metabolic health.
    Incorporating short bursts of high-intensity exercise, or “exercise snacks,” around meals can improve glucose uptake and control blood sugar levels effectively.
    “Exercise snacks” and vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) combat sedentary behaviour, enhance cognitive function, and reduce overall mortality risk.
  • Mitochondrial Health: Vigorous exercise encourages mitochondrial biogenesis (production). Mitochondria produce energy for your cells to function.
    Exercise also triggers the removal of damaged mitochondria, promoting cellular health.
  • Cancer: Exercise reduces cancer mortality risk by increasing blood flow and shear forces, killing circulating tumour cells in a dose-dependent manner.
    Physical activity before and after a cancer diagnosis significantly improves survival rates, with higher benefits observed in those more active post-diagnosis.
  • Mental health: Exercise helps muscles soak up harmful compounds, reducing the risk of neurotoxic effects linked to depression and neurodegenerative diseases.

Overall Recommendations

  • There are significant health and longevity benefits of incorporating vigorous exercise, particularly HIIT, into regular fitness routines, with a focus on improving VO2max through structured and varied intensity training.
  • Recommended HIIT protocols include longer intervals (2-5 minutes) at high intensities with adequate recovery periods to maximise effects on VO2max.
  • There are demonstrable benefits to heart health, metabolic health, cellular health, cancer risk and mental health from regularly practicing HIIT or vigorous exercise.
  • For general fitness, incorporating more vigorous exercise (at least 50% of workout time) is beneficial. Optimal health outcomes might incorporate both HIIT and moderate intensity exercises for comprehensive benefits, balancing efficiency and duration.
  • High-intensity exercise and exercise “snacks” provide substantial health benefits, reducing sedentary risks and supporting overall longevity and well-being.

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