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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Is "Cardio" a four-letter word to you?

I was talking to a colleague today at work about fitness and weight lifting. We were talking about using kettlebells, and he mentioned how he has trouble motivating himself to do cardio. He complained that it's boring and it stresses his joints.

Sometimes it seems like "cardio" is a dirty word. At least, it is to some of us! Fitness should be fun. You should find a variety of things to do that are interesting, challenging, and leave you wanting more. I grew up so anti-cardio that I think I was infamous among my school's physical education teachers for refusing to run the mile we were required to do for the Presidential Fitness Test. (I walked it EVERY YEAR.) So as someone who ran as an adult because it worked, and not because I liked it, I thought I'd share some of my favorite ways to get my cardio.

First, let me say that if you're doing 40-60 minutes of cardio, NO WONDER YOU'RE BORED! The key to shorter, more effective cardio workouts is through High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT for short. Remember how my workouts were so effective when I first started running? Well the 2 minutes of running, 3 minutes of walking was interval training! Once I could run the entire 2.5 mile circuit, I wasn't putting out the same level of effort, and ended up in a weight and fat loss plateau. And as a busy working mom, I didn't have an hour a day to spend just on cardio!

That's why HIIT is so great. It's MORE effective than "regular" cardio (some say up to 9 times more effective), takes less time, and allows you to incorporate a wider variety of exercises. The calorie burn from HIIT doesn't stop when the exercise ends. Because you've pushed your body so hard during the exercise, the calorie burn continues long AFTER the exercise is complete. This is called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) and it means that even after you get home from the gym and are vegging out on the couch with your family, you'll STILL be burning fat - more fat in total than if you'd spent an hour jogging on the treadmill. Read more about HIIT here.

So now let's talk about some of the different ways to do HIIT. There are really only a few requirements. First, your training needs to have what are called "work intervals," where you are pushing yourself to an extreme level of effort. Second, your training needs to have "recovery intervals," where you allow your heart rate to return to a more normal level. Third, you shouldn't overdo it. Limit yourself to no more than eight intervals per session. If you can do more than that, you need to increase the intensity. And on that note, let me reiterate that your work intervals need to be REALLY tough. I know I'm exercising at the right intensity level when I'm wondering whether I can make it when there are 5 seconds left on the clock.

With all that in mind, you can really use any exercise to do HIIT. In my personal workouts, I tend to alternate between three different styles:

1) Sprinting - classic intervals, I do these on the treadmill. I sprint as fast as I can (and with me admittedly not being a runner, that's frankly not very fast) at a small incline, and then walk during the recovery intervals. I still don't like these a ton, but they're over quickly, and I'm always really proud of my progress.

2) Kettlebell swings - one of the most basic and easy to learn kettlebell exercises, the swing can really get your heart rate elevated! I swing a 16kg kettlebell for 30 seconds, and then walk for 30 seconds.

3) Bodyweight exercises - this is where you can get really creative. I might do things like bodyweight squats, push-ups, jumping jacks, lunges, or really any exercise that uses a lot of the larger muscles in the body. Usually, I do a complete circuit, rest, and then repeat the circuit one or two times.

Those are the exercises I use for cardio, but there are many more! You can use a spin bike, rowing machine, stair stepper, or you can do jump roping, burpees, man-makers, or any other exercise that allows you to really push your body to its physical limits over a short period of time.

So now it's time to say, "no more excuses." You can have your cardio AND enjoy it. And my colleague? He'll be trying kettlebell swings for his cardio next time, and I bet he'll be a lot more excited about them than he was about running for 40 minutes on the treadmill!

Share with me! How do you do your HIIT?

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