How to lose weight and prevent diabetes in 6 minutes a week

sweating

I believe regular movement and exercise is essential to health. As Stephan Guyenet pointed out in a recent blog post, our paleolithic ancestors had a different word for exercise: “life“. They naturally spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun, walking, hunting, gathering, and performing various other physically-oriented tasks. They had no concept of this as “exercise” or “working out”. It was just life.

But while exercise contributes to health in several different ways, it’s not very effective for weight loss. Or, more specifically, I should say that low-intensity, “cardio” – which is how most people exercise – is not effective for weight loss.

Why cardio doesn’t work

How could this be? There are three main reasons:

  • caloric burn during exercise is generally small;
  • people who exercise more also tend to eat more (which negates the weight regulating effect of exercise); and,
  • increasing specific periods of exercise may cause people to become more sedentary otherwise.

In an example of the first reason, a study following women over a one-year period found that in order to lose one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fat, they had to exercise for an average of 77 hours. That’s a lot of time on the treadmill just to lose 2 pounds!

In an example of the second reason, a study found that people who exercise tend to eat more afterwards, and that they tend to crave high-calorie foods. The title of this study says it all: “Acute compensatory eating following exercise is associated with implicit hedonic wanting for food.” I love it when researchers have a sense of humor.

In an example of the third reason, one study assigned 34 overweight and obese women to an exercise program for 8 weeks. Fat loss at the end of the study was an average of 0.0kg. Not very impressive. But the researchers noticed that some women did lose weight, while others actually gained. What was the difference? In the women that didn’t lose weight, the increase in specific periods of exercise corresponded with a decrease in overall energy expenditure. Translation: they were more likely to be couch potatoes when they weren’t exercising, which negated the calorie-burning effect of their workouts.

If you’re still not convinced, the Cochrane group did a review of 43 individual studies on exercise for weight loss. Study length ranged from 3 to 12 months, and exercise sessions lasted on average 45 minutes with a frequency of 3-5 times per week. The results? On average, the additional weight loss from exercise averaged about 1 kg (2.2 pounds). Meh. Assuming they worked out for 45 minutes 4x/wk over 6 months, that means they had to exercise 69 hours to lose that 1 kg.

The purpose of this rather long introduction is simply to point out that low-intensity, “cardio” exercise is spectacularly ineffective for weight loss. But that doesn’t meal all types of exercise aren’t effective.

High-intensity intermittent training (HIIT)

HIIT is a type of exercise performed in short bursts (intervals) at high-intensity. Several studies have been done comparing HIIT to low-intensity, steady-state (“chronic cardio”, as Mark Sisson calls it) exercise, and HIIT has been shown to be superior in nearly every meaningful marker.

In this study, one group was assigned to “chronic cardio”, while the other was assigned to intervals of 8-second sprints. After 15 weeks, the researchers concluded:

Both exercise groups demonstrated a significant improvement (P less than 0.05) in cardiovascular fitness. However, only the HIIE group had a significant reduction in total body mass (TBM), fat mass (FM), trunk fat and fasting plasma insulin levels.

A pair of studies done at McMaster University found that “6-minutes of pure, hard exercise once a week could be just as effective as an hour of daily moderate activity“, according to the June 6, 2005 CNN article reporting on the study.

The study itself was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, and it revealed that HIIT resulted in unique changes in skeletal muscle and endurance capacity that were previously believed to require hours of exercise each week.

A follow-up study confirmed the results. Despite the fact that the more conventional endurance exercise group spent 97.5 percent more time engaged in exercise, both groups of subjects improved to the same degree. The group that exercised 97.5 percent more received no additional benefit whatsoever from doing so. Considering the wear-and-tear and increased risk of injury associated with that much more exercise, there’s absolutely no point to doing “chronic cardio” when you can receive the same benefits with a fraction of the time and risk by doing HIIT.

The Cochrane study I linked to earlier in the article also found that high-intensity exercise was superior to “chronic cardio”. In particular, the researchers found that high-intensity exercise led to a greater decrease in fasting blood glucose levels than low-intensity exercise.

Why high-intensity exercise is better

bbsIn his excellent book on high-intensity strength training, Body By Science, Dr. Doug McGuff explains that high-intensity training is superior to chronic cardio because it produces a greater stimulus and thus more effectively empties the muscles and liver of glucose. This stimulus can last several days with HIIT, as opposed to just a few hours with low-intensity training.

HIIT also activates hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL), which mobilizes fatty acids for energy use. This means that during HIIT, both glucose and fatty acids will be burned, leading to greater fat loss and restoration of insulin sensitivity.

High-intensity strength training: best of all?

Both high-intensity running or bicycling sprints and high-intensity strength training are effective. But I believe high-intensity strength training is probably a better choice for most, simply because the wear-and-tear and risk of injury is lower – especially if the strength-training is performed using weight machines as described in Body By Science.

This is, in fact, the method of training I’ve been doing since April of this year. I admit I was somewhat skeptical about it all before I read Body By Science. But the research and the physiology was convincing, so I decided to give it a try.

The results have been incredible. My workout varies in length between 5 and 9 minutes a week. That’s right, I said minutes. With only a few exceptions, I’ve increased the amount of weight I can lift, the time I can lift it, or both, with each successive workout. My strength has increased and my physique is, if anything, better than it was when I was lifting 3x/week for much longer periods.

slowburnAside from the Body By Science (BBS) weight workout which I perform once a week, I stay active on a daily basis. I ride my bike or walk to work or to do errands, and rarely drive my car. I go on walks in the woods or on the beach. I surf when time permits. But I don’t do anything else for “exercise”. This routine not only feels great, it fits very well with my lifestyle and it is completely sustainable. It doesn’t feel like an effort at all.

If you’re interested in this kind of training, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Body By Science and checking out their excellent blog. You can post your weekly workout results and get help and suggestions from the very knowledgeable community there – including both authors of the book, Doug McGuff & John Little, and other experienced trainers and enthusiasts.

Another option that may be more accessible for some is Fred Hahn’s The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution. Fred also has a website and blog worth checking out.

Final note to slackers: the popular excuse of “I don’t have time to exercise” is no longer valid. You’ve got 6 minutes a week to do this. I know you do.

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  1. says

    I don’t buy the blanket argument against “chronic cardio”.

    There are a number of epidemiological links between running and lower instances of disease: you’re at a lower risk of arthritis, lower risk of diverticulitis, and, according to the Stanford study, at a lower risk of all-cause death and disability if you’re a runner. HIIT or weight-lifting does not offer any of these benefits, although it may offer benefits to those solely interested in losing weight.

    I do agree that running won’t do a darn thing to help in losing weight. I tried that avenue for years, with no luck. Switching my diet to the sort you recommend did the trick in a couple of months.

  2. Jesse says

    I just wanted to point out that with your three reasons cardio doesn’t work, the study you cited for point 1 concludes the opposite of what you say for point 3 (which it was designed to study). Interesting contrast.

  3. says

    Fred, I’ve heard good stuff about your work.

    I’d be interested in the research that makes you believe that. So far what I’ve read for the case against “chronic cardio” from Mark Sisson and Art De Vany has been very unconvincing.

    Running seems to have some unique benefits to health, mentioned in my previous comment, which I’ve not seen replicated by any other form of exercise.

  4. says

    For instance:

    http://www.bmj.com/content/308/6923/231.full

    “Athletes from all types of competitive sports are at slightly increased risk of requiring hospital care because of osteoarthritis of the hip, knee, or ankle. Mixed sports and power sports lead to increased admissions for premature osteoarthritis, but in endurance athletes the admissions are at an older age.”

  5. says

    The one lasting effect from my days as a runner are knees that have a nasty habit of complaining when I ask them to work! The more I learn about the nasty effects of running, the ‘happier’ I am that I had to stop a few years ago because of heel spur syndrome.

    The most running I do now is some sprinting, and even those I am more inclined to do as swim sprints. You get lots of low level-cardio from walking (I walk a lot) and great high-level cardio from BBS-type weight training, intense yoga practices, and HIIT bodyweight routines. My bodyweight has never been more stable and I have never felt stronger than in the last year or so while adopting and following this type of routine.

  6. Max Speed says

    Your heart and lungs do not know if they are getting cardio from training your muscles with resistance or running long distances. Logically it makes more sense to get your cardio from training that does not stress your tendons, ligaments and joints the way running does.

    I have been doing deep tissue sports massage for twenty years and have worked on ALL types of athletes. The runners by far have the most complications including arthritic hips and knees, every over use injury on the planet and most alarming heart irregularities. Trust me, you do not want the body of a 70 year old runner who has been at it since his youth.

    In contrast, the “gym rats” are the most well rounded group and spend less time doing it. I’ll take the body of a 70 year old gym rat who lifts twice a week and stays active the rest of the time any day.

    If you don’t think you can get cardio benefits that running offers doing resistance training, go outside and do 50 non-stop burpees. How did that feel? Did you finish? Puke? All in about 2 minutes with minimal wear and tear.

    Make the switch now, you will be glad you did.

  7. Emily says

    I am a fan of interval training and have found great success with losing fat using this method. However, I am now suffering from adrenal fatigue and have been told to only do mild walking and yoga. Do you have any thoughts as to how HIIT would affect my cortisol levels?

  8. Chris Kresser says

    One of the reasons I think HIIT may be a better choice than steady-state “cardio” for many is that it probably has a negligible effect on cortisol rhythms over days and weeks. It will certainly affect cortisol on workout days, but throughout the week the effect would be less than if you were working out several times a week. Still, there’s something to be said for taking time off if your adrenal fatigue is severe. It’s difficult for me to know without knowing more about your case.

  9. Thomas says

    Chris highlighted this already, but it’s worth repeating. The absolute best thing about BBS/HIT or HIIT, other than the great results they deliver, is the efficiency. You simply get more bang (gains) for your buck (in this case, time spent exercising) with the least side effects (I know way too many runners who have screwed up hips, knees, ankles and backs-and continue to run for psychological reasons). It’s by far the best way to train for this reason alone. You probably wont get the bodybuilder physique training this way, but most people wont ever achieve that anyway.

  10. Stu Ward says

    Great article and I’ve read both Dr. McGuff and Fred’s books. I’m firmly convinced that resistance training trumps cardio every time if done with intensity. A 60-90 second set of squats will send anyone’s heartbeat soaring. Official guidelines keep focusing on duration of exercise when the real answer is intensity.

    I just want to point out that a simple body weight circuit of push ups, chin ups and squats will improve the health of most people. It’s just such a simple, boring solution that it’s easily ignored but I think it should be every ones start state. I’m interested in your opinions on this.

    Stu

  11. Chris Kresser says

    Stu: I agree and the great thing about body-weight training is that it can be done wherever you are. It’s also possible, of course, to do the push-ups, chin-ups and squats in a HIIT style.

  12. STG says

    I will not be changing my exercise program based on this article. Here is why: the kind of exercise I do, backcountry skiing, hiking and backpacking are more than just physical conditioning acitivities. They connect me with nature allowing me to observe animals (saw a black wolf this fall), see majestic places and experience serenity. Morever, the physical sense of skiing untracted powder snow is amazing! One cannot get these experience in 6 minutes or in a gym.

  13. Chris Kresser says

    STG: I didn’t suggest people stop doing activities like that, and never would. At the end of the article I mentioned that I enjoy riding my bike, walking in the woods and on the beach, surfing, and more recently, kiteboarding. Being outdoors and in nature is essential to health and well-being.

    Adding a 6-minute strength training routine like this is not intended to take the place of those activities, but to complement them. It will also improve your conditioning and performance of those activities, if that’s something you’re interested in.

  14. Thomas says

    STG-the point is not change what you already do, but to add in a short HIT program to enhance what you already do. If 6-12 minutes a week can do that (and it can), its totally worth it. Skiing and hiking are great activities and I wouldn’t stop or decrease that either.

    • Chris Kresser says

      Amber: thanks for the tip on that book. I wasn’t aware of it. Looks like it’s worth checking out, and maybe more user friendly for the general population.

  15. Jenny K says

    Hey Chris, great post!

    I’ve been incorporating hiit into my regular exercise for a while now but only recently have I made it the primary form of my exercise routine and I have to say I’ve seen some great results. I think one of the hardest parts of hiit is finding a way to do them that doesn’t require special equipment, etc. I’m a grad student, thus poor and can’t afford a gym membership. I also just like working out at home. I’ve been using exercises from Mark Lauren’s book, “You are your own gym” (http://amzn.com/0971407614) and also more recently, I’ve been doing body weight workouts from http://www.bodyrock.tv/, great workouts! Zuzana post new workouts on her blog everyday with modifications for beginners, they are always fun and intense!

    Just some ideas, especially for people who are just starting out. I think starting hiit can be a little intimidating.

    Thanks again for all your great post!

  16. Jesse says

    Jessica,
    It makes sense to be skeptical of what someone says if it promotes what that person is selling, but saying “you’re lying because you might make money if people believe you” isn’t always valid, and is kind of a lazy argument in general. If you want to show that someone is wrong, use the evidence that is available from science, or at least show that the person’s claims are not based on science.

  17. Chris Kresser says

    Jessica: many readers of this site are, in fact, doctors. From all over the world. If you have a constructive critique of the research or analysis, please present it. Otherwise your accusations have no merit.

    I invite anyone, doctor or otherwise, to try to debunk the information here. That’s the spirit of scientific inquiry, and it’s the nature of this site.

    My readers are critical thinkers who do not simply accept something because a doctor says it. That’s such a preposterous notion that it isn’t even worth challenging. You’re unlikely to convince anyone here with that kind of flawed logic.

  18. says

    @Tuck

    “There are a number of epidemiological links between running and lower instances of disease”

    I just wanted to point out the epidemiological part of this. A group of people who run just happen to have lower risk for a few conditions. Hmmm great. The Kitavans have great health and also smoke, maybe I should take up smoking. Sorry for the sarcasm, the point was that, as most people here are aware, an epidemiological link does not imply causation. The arguments against running certainly have more biological plausibility which might lend a little weighting to other papers showing epidemiological links between running and poor health outcomes.

    Also from the paper cited –

    “We grouped the athletes according to the type of sports training. Endurance sports are those that require a high amount of repetitive loading of the weight bearing joints, mixed sports include those with a greater risk of high impact loads and sprains of the joints, and power sports include sports producing less repetitions but higher forces when loading the joints (table I).”

    The paper doesnt really show that running is better than resistance training. The sports included in this study involved high impact loading, including running which imposes ground reaction forces up to around 6 times bodyweight on joints, and I’m willing to bet that the ‘weight lifters’ were not performing BBS style slow controlled lifting. All this study shows really is that consecutive impacts can put you at higher risk of osteoarthritis and the higher impact sports result in this condition earlier than lower impact. The implication is not running is better, the implication is really that impact sports in general aren’t good for your joints. Every group had a higher incidence than controls.

    James

  19. says

    @James Steele: But if something’s really bad for you, you’d expect to see some evidence of it.

    The Stanford study I mentioned specifically compared healthy runners to healthy non-runners, expecting to find that runners did worse over time. They found the reverse. Runners did dramatically better than their fit, non-obese, non-smoking non-running counterparts over a 21 year study.

    Lower *all-cause mortality* is more than “a few conditions”. You wouldn’t expect that running protects against cancer, for instance, but it’s linked with a lower incidence of cancer in that study.

    I’m open to the idea that running might be bad for you. It might be. But all the evidence seems to indicate the contrary. If you have any evidence to support your position I’d love to see it. I know that none of the folks who make the “chronic cardio” argument have anything other than anecdotal evidence, as this thread so far demonstrates.

  20. says

    @James Steele: What first paper I cited showed was that “endurance athletes” had a later onset of osteoarthritis than athletes such as weight lifters. This contradicts the “chronic cardio” premise.

  21. Chris Kresser says

    I don’t believe I argued in this article that “chronic cardio” is bad for you, or that I have ever made that argument elsewhere. (With one exception: I think there’s evidence that frequent cardio raises cortisol levels and if someone has cortisol dysregulation, chronic cardio could make it worse.)

    The argument I made in this article is that HIIT produces equivalent (or in some cases superior) physiological adaptations to “chronic cardio”, in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the risk.

    Some people enjoy running, doing the Stairmaster, etc. But many do it because they think they have to in order to get the cardiovascular benefit. Those people might be glad to learn they’re mistaken in that belief, and that they can in fact receive the same benefit in just 6-8 minutes/week.

  22. says

    @Chris Kresser: You wrote: “Several studies have been done comparing HIIT to low-intensity, steady-state (“chronic cardio”, as Mark Sisson calls it) exercise, and HIIT has been shown to be superior in nearly every meaningful marker.”

    Mark Sisson and Art De Vany both make the case that “chronic cardio” is, in fact, bad for you. The term comes with some baggage, that apparently you weren’t aware of. There do seem to be “meaningful markers” where cardio, running in particular, seems to offer benefits not available through other forms of exercise.

    I don’t know anything about the cortisol issue you raise, so I’ll just assume you’re correct.

    Other than the baggage that comes along with the “chronic cardio” term, I think it’s a great post. :)

  23. says

    @Jessica Santos: You’re delusional. Sorry. But I’ve had enough bad experiences with the medical profession over the years to know that they’re nowhere near as omniscient as you seem to think.

    My doctor is actually quite interested in this “paleo diet nonsense” after he saw it eliminate my and my wife’s prediabetes, lowered our blood cholesterol, and eliminated a condition I had had for 16 years, and which he had prescribed surgery for.

    If you had any idea what you were talking about, you’d be aware there are lots of scientists and doctors who are “promoting” this nonsense, because it works.

  24. Daniel says

    @Jessica – What makes you think Dr. Oz is not making money from going on shows? Doesn’t that mean he is no longer credible?

    I would also like to know if you have ever take the time to actually read the “scientific evidence” that Dr. Oz presents? Half the time he doesn’t even site what he claims. The fact that these all knowing Doctors actually test for total cholesterol AND tryglycerides is an oxymoron. A bit of advice if you don’t want to end up like the rest of the western world read a little.

  25. Stan says

    A doctor tested my blood pressure 140/90, asked for family history and concluded I had it in my genes and should take pills for life (good for the Pharma). I read the internet, changed my diet and life style and get by without pills and BP 115/75. It is in the Medicine establishment’s interest to have more clients for longer – it is logical and I do not blame them, they have families to feed.

  26. Chris Kresser says

    The Power of 10 or Fred Hahn’s book I mentioned in the article are both good choices for beginners. Body By Science is my favorite, but it can be a bit intimidating for those starting out.

  27. Maggie says

    Thank you, Chris. I’ll take a look at one of those books.

    I can tell I’m losing muscle as I age, and my upper body strength is nothing like it used to be.

    I’m one of those people you talk about in your post who “just doesn’t have time” (or motivation).

    We do have a nice set of free weights in the basement collecting dust. We’ve made a LOT of diet changes, for the better, in the last year. Strength training is reluctantly on the ToDo list.

  28. says

    @Jessica –

    Doctors are great when you break your leg… or get in a serious car accident and need emergency surgery to close a bleeding blood vessel… or if you get pneumonia and need antibiotics… or countless other similar examples.

    However when it comes to diet, nutrition, exercise, and what it takes to live a healthy lifestyle that minimizes the risks of developing chronic diseases, I think most honest doctors would admit they don’t have a clue. I’m only 37 years old, yet it’s amazing how many times they keep changing and adjusting the recommendations for what’s supposed to be healthy and what’s supposed to be bad.

    Also, keep in mind that most doctors get their information from medical studies (mostly funded by drug companies — gee, think there’s a bias there to make money pushing pills?). Yet statistical analysis of the most cited studies from the past decade show almost all of them are biased, and as such, we can’t rely on their results. Atlantic magazine has a great article on that: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/11/lies-damned-lies-and-medical-science/8269/

    On this site, Chris routinely cites scientific papers in his posts. Perhaps the studies he references are also biased in the manner discussed in the Atlantic magazine article. Perhaps all studies are flawed. So what are we then left with? I’d say common sense and history. If massage therapists see tons of issues with long term runners, that should tell all of us something. If people see real health improvements doing the type of exercises mentioned in this post, that also should tell us something. Finally, like Chris did at the beginning of the article, if we look back to history and realize healthy humans existed before the year 2000, yet had no concept of the term “exercise” then we should probably be able to admit that running miles each week, or doing a stair-stepper for 5 hours each week, aren’t mandatory for good health.

  29. says

    Thanks for the great post… I will check out that book also. I was a reluctant converter to high intensity and am so glad I did! I trained for a triathlon last summer and while I was improving, I wasn’t seeing the results I was hoping for. I initially added high intensity (tabata sprints, kettlebells) to my regular 2 hour a day training regimen, but when I started seeing good results, I tapered down my cardio training. The last two weeks before the race were high intensity sprints and high intensity strength with no cardio. Final result: I shaved several minutes off my time in each area from the last time I timed myself after training just cardio. I also finished in much less time than I expected (an hour 30 minutes for a sprint triathlon) and had almost no soreness the next day. I also ran it on an entirely paleo diet with no carbs before, during or after.
    Not saying my experience by any means proves anything scientifically, but it made me a believer!
    @ Jessica- I am trained in nutrition, rather highly trained actually, so that is my area of expertise as medicine is to a doctor. I know many doctors who admit that nutrition and exercise are not their specialties, which is why many refer to nutritionists and personal trainers in recommending things to patients. I’ve also talked to a lot of doctors on many of the points that Chris also brings up on this site, and many truly do not understand the physiological effects that certain types of food have on the body. Take for instance the much-debated “healthy whole grains.” While most doctors recommend them based on the food pyramid or other outdated marketing efforts, I am yet to meet a single doctor (or anyone else) who can explain away the negative effects of gluten, lectin and phytic acid.

  30. says

    This would not work for me, and I suspect a lot of other people too. I need to do a long slow warm up of all my muscles and joints before doing anything high-intensity. Otherwise I end up injuring a muscle or joint and thus defeating the whole purpose. So this would still end up being a good 30 minute workout. And I refuse to believe you can get away with only doing it once a week. All the advocates of this – like yourself Chris – have active lifestyles. I sit at a computer all day. I walk perhaps an average of 30 minutes a day but that’s it. 6 minutes a week cannot possibly be enough.

  31. says

    @Jessica

    I assume you are a troll – but in case you are sincere, here are analyses of some studies showing serious heart abnormalities in marathon runners.

    They were written by a medical doctor (me) who agrees with both Chris Kresser and Dr. Doug McGuff on the health superiority of resistance training over high volume high intensity ” cardio”

    http://www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2009/11/1/cardio-causes-heart-disease.html

    http://www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2010/3/21/still-not-born-to-run.html

  32. says

    Hey Chris,

    nice article, love the blog.

    I have some criticism regarding Body by Science though. I read the book last summer and became convinced of the methodology – I tried it for several weeks and it just didn’t work for me. Now, of course that’s merely personal anecdotal evidence – so I started to look for more information about HIT training, and I came across Malcom McDonald’s website (bodyrecomposition.com). I started a thread about HIT and BBS in particular, and got overwhelmingly negative responses not only by Malcolm himself, but also linking to others.

    Long story short: I think that the protocol they advocate in BBS is far from the one-all-end-all solution to strength training. In essence, going to failure is way too much stress for the CNS, thus preventing you from training more often. In december I tried a more traditional approach (3 sets of 6-8 repetitions two times a week, not going to failure), and not only did I quickly start gaining strength and muscle mass, but I also felt much less exhausted between sessions.

    Note that I still agree with the premise that you should aim for short, intense training sessions (e.g. at most 40 minutes). 6 minutes per week is surely enough to help restore some insulin sensitivity in obese couch potatoes, but if the goal is functional fitness and strength, I think that 2×30 minutes per week is a much more realistic target. It’s still something that anyone should be able to include in ther schedule though, especially when you do body weight exercises at home. Squats, pushups, pullups/reverse-rows, planks – you really don’t need much more than that.

  33. crispin willis says

    It’s true. My running years have left me with awful back trouble and I only ever lost weight that stayed off by sorting out my diet and selling the cross trainer! Gyms and personal trainers are making big bucks along with diet industry!

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