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Intense, brief workouts almost as effective as time-consuming cardio

PainSci » bibliography » Babraj et al 2009
Tags: exercise, self-treatment, treatment

Two pages on PainSci cite Babraj 2009: 1. Strength Training for Pain & Injury Rehab2. Strength Training Frequency

PainSci notes on Babraj 2009:

This excellent little Scottish experiment from 2009 gave us startlingly “good news”, showing that it may be possible to get really fantastic bang for your exercise buck. They found that only a few 30-second sprints on a stationary bike — intense but quick and only twice per week — may be nearly as effective at preventing disease as much more time-intensive traditional (cardio) exercise programs. In their words:

… we demonstrate for the first time that only a few minutes of high intensity interval exercise performed over two weeks is required to substantially improve both insulin action and glucose homeostasis in sedentary young males. This is both a physiologically important observation and potentially useful as it highlights a preventative intervention that could logically be implemented as an early strategy to prevent age related development of cardiovascular disease.

If true, it should change lives. And the researchers were well aware of this: they were inspired to do the research by the grim reality that the great majority of people will never make the kind of time for aerobic exercise that is officially recommended in most published guidelines. The study is noteworthy because the encouraging benefits could be halved and still be at least noteworthy: a surprising amount of benefit, for a surprisingly brief workout. The point is not that this research proves that sprints can replace tedious cardio — although that is a possibility — but that slow cardio has a diminishing returns problem: every minute on the StairMaster or trail is bestowing less benefit than the last.

original abstract Abstracts here may not perfectly match originals, for a variety of technical and practical reasons. Some abstacts are truncated for my purposes here, if they are particularly long-winded and unhelpful. I occasionally add clarifying notes. And I make some minor corrections.

BACKGROUND: Classic, long duration aerobic exercise reduces cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk but this involves a substantial time commitment. Extremely low volume high-intensity interval training (HIT) has recently been shown to cause similar improvements to aerobic performance, but it has not been established whether HIT has the capacity to improve glycemic control.

METHODS: Sixteen young men (age: 21+/-2 y; BMI: 23.7+/-3.1 kg * m-2; VO2peak: 48+/-9 ml * kg-1 * min-1) performed 2 weeks of supervised HIT comprising of a total of 15 min of exercise (6 sessions; 4-6 x 30-s cycle sprints per session). Aerobic performance (250-kJ self-paced cycling time trial), and glucose, insulin and NEFA responses to a 75-g oral glucose load (oral glucose tolerance test; OGTT) were determined before and after training.

RESULTS: Following 2 weeks of HIT, the area under the plasma glucose, insulin and NEFA concentration-time curves were all reduced (12%, 37%, 26% respectively, all P<0.001). Fasting plasma insulin and glucose concentrations remained unchanged, but there was a trend towards reduced fasting plasma NEFA concentrations post-training (pre: 350 +/- 36 v post: 290 +/- 39 mumol * l-1, P=0.058). Insulin sensitivity as measured by the Cederholm index was improved by 22.5% (P<0.01). Aerobic cycling performance was improved by ~6% (P<0.01).

CONCLUSIONS: The efficacy of a high intensity exercise protocol, involving only ~250 kcal work each week, to substantially improve insulin action in young sedentary subjects is remarkable. We feel this novel time-efficient training paradigm can be used as a strategy to reduce metabolic risk factors in young and middle aged sedentary populations who otherwise would not adhere to a classic high volume, time consuming exercise regimes.

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