The Potential for High-Intensity Interval Training to Reduce Cardiometabolic Disease Risk


In the US, 34% of adults currently meet the criteria for the metabolic syndrome defined by elevated waist circumference, plasma triglycerides (TG), fasting glucose and/or blood pressure, and decreased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C). While these cardiometabolic risk factors can be treated with medication, lifestyle modification is strongly recommended as a first-line approach. The purpose of this review is to focus on the effect of physical activity interventions and, specifically, on the potential benefits of incorporating higher intensity exercise. Several recent studies have suggested that compared with continuous moderate exercise (CME), high-intensity interval training (HIT) may result in a superior or equal improvement in fitness and cardiovascular health. HIT is comprised of brief periods of high-intensity exercise interposed with recovery periods at a lower intensity. The premise of using HIT in both healthy and clinical populations is that the vigorous activity segments promote greater adaptations via increased cellular stress, yet their short length, and the ensuing recovery intervals, allow even untrained individuals to work harder than would otherwise be possible at steady-state intensity. In this review, we examine the impact of HIT on cardiometabolic risk factors, anthropometric measures of obesity and cardiovascular fitness in both healthy and clinical populations with cardiovascular and metabolic disease. The effects of HIT versus CME on health outcomes were compared in 14 of the 24 studies featuring HIT. Exercise programmes ranged from 2 weeks to 6 months. All 17 studies that measured aerobic fitness and all seven studies that measured insulin sensitivity showed significant improvement in response to HIT, although these changes did not always exceed responses to CME comparison groups. A minimum duration of 12 weeks was necessary to demonstrate improvement in fasting glucose in four of seven studies (57%). A minimum duration of 8 weeks of HIT was necessary to demonstrate improvement in HDL-C in three of ten studies (30%). No studies reported that HIT resulted in improvement of total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), or TG. At least 12 weeks of HIT was required for reduction in blood pressure to emerge in five studies of participants not already being treated for hypertension. A minimum duration of 12 weeks was necessary to see consistent improvement in the six studies that examined anthropometric measures of obesity in overweight/obese individuals. In the 13 studies with a matched-exercise-volume CME group, improvement in aerobic fitness in response to HIT was equal to (5 studies), or greater than (8 studies) in response to CME. Additionally, HIT has been shown to be safe and effective in patients with a range of cardiac and metabolic dysfunction. In conclusion, HIT appears to promote superior improvements in aerobic fitness and similar improvements in some cardiometabolic risk factors in comparison to CME, when performed by healthy subjects or clinical patients for at least 8–12 weeks. Future studies need to address compliance and efficacy of HIT in the real world with a variety of populations.

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Susan B. Sisson is supported by a University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center Vice President of Research Seed Grant for study entitled Sitting Versus Light Activity and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Influence of a High Fat Meal. Kevin R. Short is supported by grant number P20RR024215 from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Holly S. Kessler has received no funding and the authors have no conflicts of interest to declare that are directly relevant to the content of this review.

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Correspondence to Dr Holly S. Kessler MD.

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Kessler, H.S., Sisson, S.B. & Short, K.R. The Potential for High-Intensity Interval Training to Reduce Cardiometabolic Disease Risk. Sports Med 42, 489–509 (2012).

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  • Metabolic Syndrome
  • Waist Circumference
  • Cardiometabolic Risk
  • Aerobic Fitness
  • Cardiometabolic Risk Factor