Exercising in short bursts is safe, manageable and effective. Here’s how you can do it from the comfort of your own living room.
HIIT – what’s it all about then?
High Impact Interval Training has become an extremely popular way to exercise, principally because it can be very effective, but it’s also time-efficient – fabulous for those pushed for time or wanting to see quick results. Although interval training (interspersing bouts of activity with short, regular rest breaks) has been around for a long time, HIIT came into sharper focus during the last 15 years or so, after scientific studies found it to be, potentially, a way to become much fitter through doing very short exercise sessions. One seminal study found value in participants exercising only for 2-3 minutes at a time. So, you potentially could get fit in just a few minutes a week.
Studies have variously shown that HIIT (sometimes referred to as HIIE) can significantly increase both aerobic and anaerobic fitness and can significantly lower insulin resistance. It can help to make the muscles stronger and can help us burn fat.
For a long time, and certainly while I was training to work in cancer rehabilitation, it was though that HIIT might be too much for people with cancer. It was thought that working at such high levels of intensity could cause fatigue, which would have been completely counterproductive in a population already know to experience tiredness. Plus, although there is a growing body of clinical evidence to support the benefits of HIIT, most of the earlier studies were carried out on healthy, young (often male) participants and they would exercise to a point of significant discomfort during the trial sessions. There’s an argument for a little caution in understanding how this otherwise convincing evidence applies, in real life, to people with cancer.
However a study published  in 2019, reviewing the current evidence around the effects of HIIT for people with cancer has found benefit: that doing HIIT could be as helpful as more moderate types of exercise, and is better than no exercise at all. The review also found that people who used HIIT during and after cancer treatment were more likely to burn fat than those doing more moderate exercise. The review concluded that ‘HIIT might be a time-efficient intervention for cancer patients across all stages of therapy and aftercare.’
So, it’s another tool to add to the box, if it’s something you think you might enjoy.
Isn’t that what that journalist was doing when he had a stroke?
Yes, it is – in 2013 Andrew Marr suffered a stroke after an extremely hard interval workout on a rowing machine. This sounds alarming, of course, but there were other factors involved – he’d had two ‘mini-strokes’ before, and reportedly was under a lot of stress in his life when it happened. In response to Mr Marr’s experience the Nursing Times gave some great advice on what could be learnt from Mr Marr’s experience, which centred around understanding the link between high blood pressure, stress and TIA (ministroke) “We do know that high blood pressure itself is the single biggest cause of stroke. Until more research is done on specific triggers, we’d suggest getting your blood pressure checked and taking steps to keep it under control – exercise can help with that”.
So, if you’re reading this and if you’ve had a history of high blood pressure (or TIA), or are very unfit, then a gentler start to getting fitter would be safer and may feel less overwhelming. If you think this applies to you, please have a good chat with your GP, oncologist or a specialist trainer to make sure that you opt for types of exercise that will be both effective and safe, for you, for now.
What do I need?
This routine has been designed purposefully to use minimal equipment – you just need a chair, or a rigid wooden box that’ll hold your body weight, or a steep step.
The routine deliberately uses exercise that you perform on your feet, rather than lying down – both to keep up our weight-bearing bone density intentions, and because some people find that getting up and down from the floor is too uncomfortable on the joints.
You need to be able to keep a close eye on a stop watch without having to stop and fiddle about with it. There are lots of free apps to download onto a smartphone that will beep at given intervals and these are really helpful.
As you’re going to bounce about a fair bit, I recommend wearing trainers rather than going barefoot.
These simple, body weight exercises are based on the original science around HIIT but adapted so they’re do-able for most people. Learn the moves first, learn to do them well as they’re also the basis for a good gentle strength and cardio based workout. Then, when you’re ready, move on to doing them as quickly as you can for a High Impact Interval Training session. Just promise me you’ll do everything with your best posture and technique and don’t let your good posture slip in favour of moving rapidly.
First, warm up your body – walk up and down the stairs, or march on the spot for a few minutes. Circle all of your major joints – ankles, knees, hips and shoulders. Gently bend from side to side, then twist around, rotating the spine.
For a gentle workout that will work your heart and lungs and all of your major muscles, do each of these exercises 10 times, have a short break, then repeat if you have the energy. It should feel like you’re working at an effort rate of 7 out of 10.
Once you’ve got used to these moves, you can up the ante by making this a High Intensity Interval Training session. Do each move as quickly as you can for 45 seconds, resting only for 15 seconds between them to get your breath back. Use your 15 second break to get into position for the next exercise – move briskly and steadily through the whole routine without stopping if you can.
You should feel like you’re working at 8 or 9 out of 10. Make sure you do the exercise properly though – don’t compromise your posture or technique. Have a rest after you’ve done all 12 moves, then repeat if you have the energy.
(This is a workout that I demonstrated at the Ideal Home Show 2019 in Olympia, London)
And we’re off…
1.Twist & Jump. Start with your feet facing to your right, shoulders and arms to the left. Jump, or bounce on the balls of your feet, to the opposite direction and repeat.
2. Plie Squat. Start with your feet wider than your shoulders. without tipping forward, and keeping your spine as straight as you can, spat down until you feel a stretch in your inner thighs.
3. Press up. With your hands shoulder width and shoulder height on a wall, hold your back straight, brace your tummy muscles, go onto the balls of your feet, then without moving your spine or hips (at all!) bend your elbows and dip down towards the wall. Push your self back up again
- Standing Ab crunch – alternate legs. Stand tall, then with your hands gently cradling your head, bring one knee towards the chest whilst taking the chest towards the knee. Try to feel movement in your tummy muscles rather than just curling your spine and dropping the head forwards (we’re trying to mimic a sit-up, but from standing). Stand back up and repeat on the other leg.
- Step up. Either use a steep step, or a solid, flat seated chair, wooden box etc. Push it against a wall so it can’t tip backwards. Step up onto the chair to your full height, placing all of your foot onto the chair, then lower yourself back down. Repeat on the other side.
- Tricep dips. With your chair, box etc against the wall, sit on the edge, then gently lower your bum towards the floor, keeping your spine near to the chair, then push yourself back up. The further your feet are from the chair, the harder this is.
- Squat. With your weight on your heels (rather than your toes), and your back straight, lower yourself down as if sitting onto an imaginary chair. Make sure you sit back, rather than squatting by bringing your knees forwards. Drive your heels into the floor as you stand up again.
- Mountain climber. Lean on the seat of the chair, making a straight line from your heels, through your hips and spine up to your neck. Without letting your hips raise up or sink downwards, bring your left knee towards your left elbow, then repeat on the right.
- Punches. Make fists, with your thumb outside your curled fingers. Bring your left fist, palm facing upwards, so it’s in front of your armpit. Extend your right fist so your knuckles are facing upwards. Swap them, bringing the right fist back and the left fist forwards at the same time. Unleash as much stress and frustration as you wish!
- Lunge. Holding onto a chair if you need to for balance, take a long, wide step back with your right leg. Lift the right heel, then bend both knees at the same time to bring your bodyweight downwards in a vertical direction. Make sure that you do bend the back knee, and that your front knee doesn’t come forwards. You should be able to see the toes on your front foot. Rise back up and repeat on the other side.
- Plank & rotate. In the same starting point as for the mountain climbers, shift your weight onto your right arm and twist upwards towards your left shoulder, rolling your feet around at the same time so that your weight is mostly on your right foot. Come back to the starting position then repeat on the other side.
- Bicycle crunch. Shift your body weight so that it’s mostly on your left leg, then bring your right knee towards your left elbow. Try to feel your abdominal muscles pulling your shoulder towards your hip – you should feel movement around your waist. Repeat on the other side.
Have a good stretch.
Stick the kettle on.
 Stephen H Boucher, ‘High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss’, Journal of Obesity 2011
Mugele et al, ‘High-intensity interval training in the therapy and aftercare of cancer patients: a systematic review with meta-analysis, journal of Cancer Survival 2019
 Nursing Times ‘Is exercise to blame for Andrew Marr’s stroke?’ April 2013