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Get Fit Quick: Ed Coyle on PYP 448

How much exercise should you get every week? The recommendations vary, but they all circle around 150-300 minutes a week of non-vigorous exercise, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous exercise.

And do you know how many Americans hit those numbers? Fewer than 20 percent.

It makes sense, really. Exercise takes a lot of time, including preparing, warming up, showering, and so on. And you can't exactly grab 30 minutes at lunchtime if you're going to sweat like a gladiator in your next Zoom meeting.

Plus, most people don't like feeling out of breath, or tired, or achy.

But as today's guest points out, the science of exercise hasn't really moved on from its original assumption that long, slow, low-intensity workouts are the gold standard, and are what most of the population should be going for.

Enter the renegade world of HIIT research.

HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training, and it's pretty much the opposite of mainstream exercise science over the past 50 years.

In HIIT, you work really hard – maybe even as hard as you can – for a short amount of time, and then rest until your next set. The advantage is a shorter, more efficient workout that achieves the same health and fitness outcomes as the longer, traditional workouts.

Six years ago, I interviewed one of the research pioneers behind HIIT, McMaster University's Martin Gibala. His workout, radical at the time, involved 20-second periods of high intensity repeated three times in a short span of time, for a total of one minute a day, three days a week.

The popular press got their hands on the idea and pushed it as a “minimum workout” for busy and lazy people. But 20 seconds is still a long time, and many folks found the workouts to be highly unpleasant, even if they were unpleasant for just half a minute at a time.

So today's guest, Ed Coyle, a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology & Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin, wondered what the shortest useful interval would be. And he discovered that four seconds does the trick.

Not only that, 4-second intervals allow for higher efficiency, less fatigue and soreness, and significant improvements in measures of fitness and health.

NOTE: This is not a “4-second workout,” as the popular press likes to label it. Instead, it's a workout of 20 or so sets of 4-second “go as hard as you can” sprints, taking about 15 minutes total.

As Coyle explains during our conversation, when we work out long and slow, we recruit only half of our muscle fibers – the slow-twitch ones. Four-second HIIT intervals fire up the fast-twitch fibers, which are the ones most susceptible to hypertrophy (wasting) as we age. Plus, those fibers also use glucose and can contribute to fat metabolism, which means onboarding them can combat high blood glucose and hyperlipidemia.

In studies with athletes and aging ordinary people, the gains over 8 weeks of fun and short workouts were remarkable.

In our conversation, we talk about the data, the experience of running the studies, and the exercise bike that's at the center of the work, the Power Cycle. Since the bike isn't yet commercially available and will cost about $2500 when it is, I pressed for free or cheap alternatives that anyone can do to approximate the benefits of the Power Cycle.

We also discussed Coyle's personal workout regimen, and how he combines HIIT with other activities to stay fit as he gets on in years.


The Human Performance Laboratory at U of Texas Austin

The January 2021 study of HIIT with older non-athletes

The New York Times article about Coyle's work

Martin Gibala on Plant Yourself (January 2015)

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