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Aerobic Interval Training

April 18, 2011 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Aerobic interval training is by far my favorite form of cardiovascular exercise. It doesn’t matter if I’m on a treadmill, in the gym or walking on the beach. I could be alone or training a group of clients. The bottom line is that if I’m working out, part of my routine is almost certainly composed of walking at variable inclines and speeds. That’s essentially what aerobic interval training (AIT) is. Instead of walking at a constant pace for prolonged periods of time, you simply push yourself to walk faster/harder for shorter intervals followed by less intense intervals in between.

According to a recent review by the Mayo Clinic, AIT confers certain unique health benefits when compared to more conventional forms of exercise. Chief among the evidence-based claims made by the Clinic staff are the following incentives: 1) it will help you burn more calories; 2) it can improve aerobic capacity; 3) it minimizes muscle soreness by discouraging the “buildup of waste products in your muscles” and; 4) it makes your workout less boring and monotonous. (1)

The impact of cardiovascular disease on the population at large is nearly incalculable. The likelihood of living a long life without encountering some heart-related health issue is exceedingly uncommon in the 21st century. And when the day comes that you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or some degree of arterial blockage, the march toward putting you on medications to address these risk factors will likely begin. As it so happens, aerobic interval training appears to be a valuable tool in forestalling various forms of cardiovascular damage and dysfunction and may even serve to prevent the development of heart disease in the first place.

A powerful new study appearing in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention & Rehabilitation compared the effects of AIT vs. “isocaloric moderate intensity continuous training” or MIT in a group of 88 patients with essential hypertension. All of the study participants took part in three sessions of treadmill walking per week for a total of 12 weeks. The findings of the trial were nothing short of stunning:

  • The interval training group demonstrated a reduction in systolic blood pressure of 12 mmHg as compared to only 4.5 mmHg in the continuous training group.
  • Diastolic blood pressure declined by 8 mmHg in the AIT volunteers and only 3.5 mmHg in the MIT volunteers.

Other measures of aerobic capacity and cardiovascular health including VO(2max) or maximal oxygen uptake and flow mediated dilation were primarily evident in the AIT participants. The authors of the experiment concluded that, “This study indicates that the blood pressure reducing effect of exercise in essential hypertension is intensity dependent. Aerobic interval training is an effective method to lower blood pressure and improve other cardiovascular risk factors.” (2)

The prospect of preventing heart disease in at-risk populations is at least as exciting a concept to me as treating it naturally. Several recent interventions have established that the regular practice of aerobic interval training can reverse the trend toward cardiovascular damage in obese adolescents and young adults. In fact, when out-of-shape youth stick with an AIT regime for 3 months or more, it tends to restore diastolic and systolic cardiac function to a level expected in their lean counterparts. What’s more, some of the positive studies have only demanded an exercise regiment of 2-3 times weekly. As a bonus, overweight adolescents in the AIT clinical trials lost more body fat and weight, and exhibited other positive health shifts, such as a greater decline in blood sugar and insulin in comparison to other forms of exercise. (3,4,5)

Older men and women should also take heart: aerobic interval training isn’t just a “sport” for elite athletes and grandchildren. Please don’t assume that just because you’re currently inactive that this form of exercise is not for you. I would argue that the opposite is often true. A publication in the March 2011 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine illustrates my point. In it, researchers from the Shinshu University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan explain that seniors who took part in “interval walking training” found numerous health benefits ranging from an improvement in muscle strength to an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol. But what’s equally important to note is that the older subjects who were considered in the poorest physical shape demonstrated the greatest gains in various health parameters. Other studies suggest that the advancements in physical health and well being in seniors become apparent even after short-term AIT trials lasting only 9 weeks. (6,7,8)

The Differing Effects of Aerobic, Strength and Combination Training

Source: Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Nov;110(5):893-903. (link)

Metabolic syndrome (MetS) is characterized by a set of risk factors including abdominal obesity, elevated triglycerides, high blood sugar, hypertension and low HDL (“good”) cholesterol. It is sometimes referred to as “pre-diabetes” and “pre-heart disease”. Twelve weeks of AIT and/or a combination of AIT plus strength training has been shown to enhance circulation via an improvement in endothelial function and lower waist circumference in those with metabolic syndrome. Research out of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology recently delved even deeper by documenting changes that occur on a cellular level in MetS patients who engage in AIT. Their findings state that, “Increased transcription of genes involved in steroid hormone-mediated signaling, decreased levels of arginase-1, and reduced transcription of genes involved in cell adhesion, and blood clotting are likely involved in exercise-induced improvements of endothelial function, and improved cardiovascular risk profile in metabolic syndrome patients.” (9,10,11)

As promising as aerobic interval training is, there is a common sense caveat that I need to put forth. Before starting any serious exercise regimen, consult with your doctor first. This is especially important if you have a pre-existing medical condition. In most instances, you’ll probably find that your physician is quite supportive of the idea of AIT. He or she may be aware of studies that show that interval training can actually lower the rates of all-cause mortality and hospitalization in patients with conditions as serious as chronic heart failure. Even so, one of the founding tenants of holistic medicine should be applied here and always: don’t generalize, treat the individual. No two people are the same. So start by getting the go-ahead from your health care team and then begin walking your way to better health – at a slightly different pace. (12,13,14)

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!


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Posted in Diabetes, Exercise, Heart Health

7 Comments & Updates to “Aerobic Interval Training”

  1. Rose Says:

    I’m planning on trying your advice. It is not easy to just get up and start walking. It get really boring and don’t feel the need to do it another day.

    I walk on the treadmill for 15 minutes which burn 100 cal. It’s very boring… you’re right a person have to do walking and some type of aerobic exercise.

  2. anne h Says:

    I just started CrossFit.
    And they have us doing just about the same schedule!
    Good to know we’re on the right track!

  3. JP Says:

    Glad to hear it, Anne. Best wishes with your new exercise regimen!

    Be well!


  4. Gio Says:

    Quite informative! Thanks for the post!

  5. JP Says:

    Update 04/28/15:


    Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Post Acceptance: April 18, 2015

    Effects of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Training on Appetite Regulation.

    Objective: An acute bout of high intensity intermittent exercise suppresses ad-libitum energy intake at the post-exercise meal. The present study examined the effects of 12 weeks of high intensity intermittent exercise training (HIIT) compared with moderate intensity continuous exercise training (MICT) on appetite regulation.

    Methods: Thirty overweight, inactive men (BMI: 27.2 +/- 1.3 kg/m2; V[spacing dot above]O2Peak: 35.3 +/- 5.3 mL.kg-1.min-1) were randomised to either HIIT or MICT (involving 12 weeks of training, 3 sessions per week) or a control group (CON) (n = 10 per group). Ad-libitum energy intake from a laboratory test meal was assessed following both a low-energy (LEP: 847 kJ) and a high-energy preload (HEP: 2438 kJ) pre and post-intervention. Perceived appetite and appetite-related blood variables were also measured.

    Results: There was no significant effect of the intervention period on energy intake at the test meal following the two different preloads (p >= 0.05). However, the 95% CI indicated a clinically meaningful decrease in energy intake after the HEP compared with LEP in response to HIIT (516 +/- 395 kJ decrease), but not for MICT or CON, suggesting improved appetite regulation. This was not associated with alterations in the perception of appetite or the circulating concentration of a number of appetite-related peptides or metabolites, although insulin sensitivity was enhanced with HIIT only (p = 0.003).

    Conclusion: HIIT appears to benefit appetite regulation in overweight men. The mechanisms for this remain to be elucidated.

    Be well!


  6. JP Says:

    Updated 1/4/16:


    Physiol Behav. 2015 Dec 23. pii: S0031-9384(15)30218-3.

    Greater impact of acute high-intensity interval exercise on post-exercise executive function compared to moderate-intensity continuous exercise.

    Aerobic moderate-intensity continuous exercise (MCE) can improve executive function (EF) acutely, potentially through the activation of both physiological and psychological factors. Recently, high-intensity interval exercise (HIIE) has been reported to be more beneficial for physical adaptation than MCE. Factors for EF improvement can potentially be more enhanced by HIIE than by MCE; but the effects of HIIE on EF remain unknown. Therefore, we aimed to examine to what extent HIIE impacts post-exercise EF immediately after exercise and during post-exercise recovery, compared with traditional MCE. Twelve healthy male subjects performed cycle ergometer exercise based on either HIIE or MCE protocols in a randomized and counterbalanced order. The HIIE protocol consisted of four 4-min bouts at 90% of peak VO2 with 3-min active recovery at 60% of peak VO2. A volume-matched MCE protocol was applied at 60% of peak VO2. To evaluate EF, a color-words Stroop task was performed pre- and post-exercise. Improvement in EF immediately after exercise was the same for the HIIE and MCE protocols. However, the improvement of EF by HIIE was sustained during 30min of post-exercise recovery, during which MCE returned to the pre-exercise level. The EF response in the post-exercise recovery was associated with changes in physiological and psychological responses. The present findings showed that HIIE and MCE were capable of improving EF. Moreover, HIIE could prolong improvement in EF during post-exercise recovery. For the first time, we suggest that HIIE may be more effective strategy than MCE for improving EF.

    Be well!


  7. JP Says:

    Updated 06/04/16:


    Int J Sports Med. 2016 Jun 3.

    Low-Volume High-Intensity Interval Training as a Therapy for Type 2 Diabetes.

    Our purpose was to investigate the effects of low-volume, high-intensity interval training (HIT) on cardiometabolic risk and exercise capacity in women with type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). Sedentary overweight/obese T2DM women (age=44.5±1.8 years; BMI=30.5±0.6 kg/m2) were randomly assigned to a tri-weekly running-based HIT program (n=13) or non-exercise control follow-up (CON; n=10). Glycemic control, lipid and blood pressure levels, endurance performance, and anthropometry were measured before and after the follow-up (16 weeks) in both groups. Medication intake was also assessed throughout the follow-up. Improvements (P<0.05) on fasting glucose (14.3±1.4%), HbA1c (12.8±1.1%), systolic blood pressure (3.7±0.5 mmHg), HDL-cholesterol (21.1±2.8%), triglycerides (17.7±2.8%), endurance performance (9.8±1.0%), body weight (2.2±0.3%), BMI (2.1±0.3%), waist circumference (4.0±0.5%) and subcutaneous fat (18.6±1.4%) were found after HIT intervention. Patients of HIT group also showed reductions in daily dosage of antihyperglycemic and antihypertensive medication during follow-up. No changes were found in any variable of CON group. The HIT-induced improvements occurred with a weekly time commitment 56-25% lower than the minimal recommended in current guidelines. These findings suggest that low-volume HIT may be a time-efficient intervention to treat T2DM women.

    Be well!


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