I have a confession: I used to be a couch potato. I considered pushing the buttons on the remote a workout. I was a vegetarian who ate potato chips as a main course and cookies for dessert. And yes, I was fat. I was a fat vegetarian, which is really embarrassing. People are like, “Aren’t you supposed to eat salads or something?” (I did eat salads. I just ate a lot more potato chips. Potatoes are vegetables too, you know.)
But, like many people, I eventually decided that I wanted to get in shape and lose weight. Once every few months, I’d get enthusiastic about exercising and run a few laps around the living room. Or maybe I’d try a new exercise fad like hula-hooping or jumping jacks or doing cartwheels in a corset like some super-skinny celebrity. The next day, I’d be sore and decide to wait until my muscles felt better to exercise again. A couple months later, I’d repeat the cycle. As you might imagine, I didn’t make much progress that way.
Then my mom asked if I wanted her old stationary bicycle, since she’d finally reorganized her closet and no longer needed to use the bike as a coat rack. The first day I had it, I used it for twenty minutes, and then celebrated by eating a pint of ice cream. The next day I was sore from all that exercise and, well, you know the rest.
One day I realized the only thing keeping me from being in shape was my dedication to making excuses. If I’d spent half as much time exercising as I did inventing reasons I couldn’t, I’d be fit already! And believe me, I was great at making excuses: The couch looks lonely. Those chips aren’t going to eat themselves. I could hurt myself exercising. There’s something great on the television tonight. I don’t have time.
I started by tackling that last one. Whether it was first thing in the morning or when I got home at night, I made time to exercise every day. If I had a long day at work and I was tired, I still put in my half hour on the bike. If I had other things to do when I got home, I told myself I better hurry up and exercise so I could get to them. I put the bike in front of the TV so I wouldn’t miss my shows while cycling. (Bonus—cliffhangers raise your heart rate. More cardio!)
Even so, doing the same routine every day was boring, and I was disappointed with the results—I didn’t lose much weight, even though I was exercising regularly. I considered giving up again, since my hard work wasn’t paying off. Then one day I read a fitness magazine, and came across an article about High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT, for short). It said what everyone had thought for years was wrong—walking slowly for an hour did not produce the same weight loss and health benefits as jogging for half an hour, or running really fast for a quarter of an hour. Exercising at a very high intensity for a short time produces better results than hours of low-intensity exercise.
Does that sound too good to be true? It did to me too, but it also sounded like it would be different from my normal routine. If I followed the plan outlined in the article, I could reduce the time I spent exercising every day by twenty minutes. Besides, the magazine didn’t recommend buying any workout equipment, new shoes or magic fat burning pills, so it couldn’t be much of a rip-off.
As it turned out, HIIT wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Yes, I only had to exercise for ten minutes , but I was far more exhausted after that ten minutes than I had been after half an hour of regular cardio. I would cycle at a moderate pace for forty seconds, and then go as fast as I could for twenty seconds, then repeat, skipping one twenty-second interval halfway through.
The first time I tried this workout, I felt like my legs were going to fall off afterward. Despite the fact that I was in the habit of riding the bicycle, I was still incredibly sore the next day—but since I was finished with making excuses, I did another HIIT workout anyway. (I later learned you’re only supposed to do them every other day, but fuck that, do them every day and you get better results faster.) After a few days, I was no longer sore, but I still found the routine extremely difficult. I told myself that was a fair exchange for spending less time exercising. Within a month, I had lost ten pounds, even though I was exercising for a third of the time I had been before—with zero results.
How could that be? Because I was both encouraged by my results and puzzled by them, I started reading everything I could about HIIT. I learned when your heart rate gets high enough—you should aim for about 75-85% of your maximum heart rate, which can be calculated here—your metabolism increases, and not just during the workout. Studies have shown people who do HIIT burn more calories during the 24 hours after exercising than those who do steady-state cardio, even when the HIIT exercisers spent less time working out. Because high-intensity exercise is very strenuous, the body works harder to repair itself afterwards, and that increases metabolism. Reaching 75-85% of your target heart rate, or TRT, also spurs the production of adrenaline, which not only gives you a boost of energy, it also tells your body to start burning fat. (It’s been shown to be especially effective at torching belly fat.) Again, this effect lasts for hours after you stop exercising.
My research encouraged me to increase the benefits of HIIT training by extending my workouts. I started doing five minutes at a moderate pace after the first ten minutes of high-intensity exercise, so I could reap the benefits of increased metabolism. Later I increased it to ten minutes, and eventually, I was doing half-hour workouts again—but this time, I was getting somewhere. Within six months, I had lost almost forty pounds, and I hadn’t even gone on a diet.
To keep things interesting, I invested in a treadmill. I now had more options than just going faster or slower—I could increase the incline or add weights since I didn’t have to grip the bike’s handlebars anymore. Still committed to HIIT routines, I started out walking at a brisk pace, with twenty-second running sprints. I gradually increased the speed of my sprints, and now I start my workouts jogging at a moderate pace. After the first ten minutes of high-intensity activity, I go back to a brisk walk (4 miles an hour is a good pace for me), with another twenty-second sprint every five minutes.
While I try to vary my routines, both to keep them interesting and to make my body work harder to adjust, there’s one thing I don’t vary from: I exercise every day. I still think of excuses not to, but now I also have a rebuttal for every excuse:
“I had a hard day at work and I’m tired.” Then I really need to exercise so I can relieve the stress of my rotten day. I don’t know how I dealt with stress when I was sedentary. No matter how bad my day is, I feel a lot more relaxed after a run. This is probably due to exercise endorphins—feel-good chemicals the brain produces during a workout. Also, hitting a punching bag is great therapy when you’re angry at someone, and the punching bag isn’t going to sue you afterwards.
“I’m still sore from yesterday’s workout.” That means I built muscle, and if I don’t use it, I’ll lose it.
“I don’t have time.” I don’t have time not to exercise. Studies show people who exercise are more productive throughout the day than those who don’t. In my own experience, I’ve found that my workouts are a good time to think. I have time to plan other activities, and I come up with solutions to problems a lot faster when running—and why wouldn’t I? When will I have better blood flow to the brain? Never. I also love to think about story ideas while I run. Almost everything I write, I think of on the treadmill.
That brings us back to the stress thing. Once, after a difficult day of dealing with dumb people at my then-job (see my previous post for more on Asshats I Met When I Worked in Retail), I ran on my treadmill and thought about how much I hated dealing with idiots, and how I just wanted to move them all to another planet somewhere. Then, as I ran faster, it occurred to me that would be a logistical nightmare, because there are so many more idiots than intelligent people in the world. It would be easier to move the smart people to another planet and let the idiots have Earth.
That idea became my first book, Stupid Humans, which will be published in July. Had I not gone for a run after my shitty day at work, I don’t think it would ever have crossed my mind.
HIIT workouts aren’t right for everyone—and due to their strenuous nature, it’s best to consult a doctor before trying them—but getting into an exercise routine is a good idea for most people. The important thing is to find an activity you feel motivated to stick with, find a reason to start and, most importantly, learn to overcome those excuses.
List of links from article, in order of appearance:
Calculate target heart rate:
Benefits of HIIT workouts:
Studies on exercise and productivity: