Current research shows that HIIT is the most time-effective way to increase your metabolic rate and burn fat as fuel. It consists of short periods of explosive exercise (such as sprints, hitting the bag, jump squats, kettlebell swings, burpees, snatches, etc.) followed by less-intense recovery periods. Because you are doing more intense work over a short period, the work yield from one session is higher than if you were doing steady-state exercise for the same amount of time. It can help increase speed, power, endurance, and metabolic rate, aiding your body to burn fat faster, especially visceral fat – the dangerous kind. The short periods of high-intensity movement must be perceived as intense for each individual, and therefore will vary from person to person. An example of HIIT could be a sprint on the treadmill for 40 seconds followed by an 80-second walk, repeated five times.
But it’s not that simple.
In theory, yes, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is great for efficiently and effectively losing body fat. However, if that’s the goal, it’s equally important to look at the way a person lives their life day to day, taking into account work, rest and relaxation, food, sleep, and, of course, the big S word: stress. These factors are so important that prescribing exercises without looking at a person’s lifestyle can actually be counter-productive and – in some cases – lead to fat gain!
All of this hard work goes out the window when high levels of stress are involved and cortisol levels are constantly high.
The body doesn’t work in the simplistic, straightforward way our textbooks expect it to. It is a highly evolved biomechanical wonder, which is beautifully crafted to make each one of us unique. As a Sport Scientist with the altered ego of a Spiritual Sports Coach, I have long been fascinated with how interconnected the body is and how just one small factor (lack of sleep, mood, sporadic eating, a common cold) could affect the outcomes of a study. Indeed, for scientific research to be considered valid and reliable, environmental factors like those listed above have to be controlled in order to lessen their impact on the results.
I have observed the biggest fat-loss transformations from my clients when they incorporate two to three 20- or 30-minute HIIT workouts per week into their training plan, accompanied by a full-body, strength-training program twice per week. However – all of this hard work goes out the window when high levels of stress are involved and cortisol levels are constantly high.
Cortisol is a hormone, or a chemical messenger. When we feel a certain way (angry, stressed, hungry, sad), it’s because certain hormones are surging around our body. Cortisol is one of our principle stress hormones, alongside noradrenalin, and it has a natural daily rhythm where it peaks an hour after waking (around 7 or 8 a.m. depending on the individual), starts dropping before noon, and decreases throughout the day heading towards bedtime. However, this hormone will also rise and fall according to what is happening to us, or environmental factors and stressors, and will go into overdrive when we are stressed.
Even though we are constantly told how bad stress is for us, it’s not entirely true. In fact, a rush of stress primes our mind and body to tackle problems head on. We were originally designed to experience stress in short bursts; when chasing or being chased by lions and tigers, for instance, stress made us sharper, faster, and more aware, therefore serving its purpose. However, when we endure it for prolonged periods of time, it becomes a problem. Unfortunately for us modern humans, that seems to be most of the time.
Cortisol works by activating our sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as our fight-or-flight response – as in, do I fight the tiger or do I run from it? People nowadays are constantly in this mode of operation as a result of stress resulting from work, deadlines, relationship drama, traffic, social media, etc. This means that our cortisol levels are constantly elevated, causing our heart rate to quicken, muscles to contract, lung tubes to widen, pupils to dilate, and digestive system to turn off because all of our energy is focused on not becoming a tiger’s lunch.
What’s more, constantly elevated cortisol levels consistently produce glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels (which make you crave sugary foods), making our bodies resistant to insulin, which in turn can lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes. So, adding in a stressful HIIT workout program to an already highly stressful lifestyle characterized by a fast-paced high-pressured job, bad food choices, and a family to look after is probably not the best choice for a “fat-burning exercise routine” – a phrase I dislike anyway.
The best way to start using your fat stores naturally is to first balance out your stress levels and change your lifestyle. This will allow you to achieve balance in your autonomic nervous system. As opposed to the way our fight-or-flight, sympathetic nervous system works, the chilled parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite: saliva production increases, digestive enzymes are released, the heart rate drops, and muscles relax. It allows us to digest food properly, de-stress, and sleep well. To help manage high cortisol levels, we must encourage the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Here are some ways to do exactly that.
Practice parasympathetic breathing when you wake up and before you go to sleep.
Parasympathetic breathing (performance state breathing) allows us to send more oxygen around the body to nourish and heal our cells whilst lowering our stress levels.
Simply lie on your back and place your hands on your belly. Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to fill with air, lifting your hands at the same time, then exhale by relaxing and releasing all of the air through your nose (or through your mouth like a big sigh) as your hands fall back down with the belly. All of the breathing should be in the abdomen and not in the chest and shoulders.
This method has proven effective with helping clients sleep. Indeed, just 20 breaths before bed sends you off into a deep sleep, which is crucial. Without proper sleep, we cannot heal our bodies from everyday trauma, and our cortisol levels remain high.
In the morning, when you wake, it is a great way to approach the day with a focused mindset by allowing all of that oxygen to flow freely around the body and help you think clearly.
Pray or practice gratitude.
When you give thanks and appreciation genuinely, it is almost impossible to feel anxious or bad. By speaking the words out loud (whether you’re praying or talking to the universe) or keeping a gratitude journal in which you write down five things you are grateful for each day, you increase feel-good vibes and express happiness for what you have been given in life, however big or small, thus minimizing stress.
Walk or jog outside once per day.
Being in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature, has been proven to reduce anger, fear, and stress while increasing feelings of happiness. Appreciating your natural surroundings not only makes you feel better emotionally, but it also contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of cortisol.
When I moved to Dubai it was hard for me at first to find nature the way I knew it from the UK and Thailand, but as I started to take myself on quiet little walks around the city, I began to discover some of its hidden gems. My favorite walk is Downtown by the Creek, where I can watch the water and think about life. Bliss.
Take a cold shower.
Cold showers offer many physical benefits. For instance, they boost blood circulation and your immune system, and leave you with great skin and hair. What’s more, research has shown that showering in cold water increases your metabolic rate, lowers your heart rate, and decreases cortisol.
Start with one minute and build up to at least three. The colder the better.
Drink your coffee before noon.
If you need a coffee in the morning to wake you up, try the cold shower technique and then see if you really need the coffee. If the answer is still a yes, keep coffee to a minimum of two cups per day before noon. Coffee will spike your insulin and increase cortisol levels unnecessarily.
Set aside time to practice strength training, HIIT, and mobility every day.
Physical activity raises your metabolic rate and assists with weight loss. That being said, and given what you now know about the counter-effects of high stress levels, it’s important to listen to what your body needs to get the best results. Your daily practice should be something that you enjoy and look forward to.
Set aside two sessions per week for full-body strength training with resistance, mixing bodyweight, weight lifting, and slower training where you become aware of areas that need strengthening. This will set you up nicely for your two or three 20- to 30-minute sessions of HIIT training per week.
Remember that your HIIT training must be specific to you. The short period of high intensity movement must be perceived as intense for you. A sprint on the treadmill for 40 seconds might be the same as a 40 second walk up a steep incline for someone else.
Mobility work should be done at the start and end of each session and on the days when you need some more relaxing activity. Stretches using your new-found parasympathetic breathing techniques, yoga flows, your own flow, or dancing will all help to align your body and get it to work effectively and efficiently
Whatever you do, don’t be too hard on yourself. Work with your body, not against it.
Laugh – a lot.
Laughter is the best therapy, so download a Netflix special, buy tickets to a comedy show, or just make time for someone you have fun with.
Take some time for yourself and just get away. Book a holiday, plan a staycation, or just take a long drive.
I will be hosting a retreat in Koh Samui between April 26 and May 3rd. The schedule includes daily practices of breathing, mindfulness, meditation, mobility, and Muay Thai, all while surrounded by breathtaking natural landscapes.
For more details, contact me here.
With over twenty years in the health and fitness industry, Sonja Moses began her journey lecturing and educating across different universities after attaining her BSc Hons degree in Applied Sport Sciences. Throughout this time, she has worked with global brands such as Nike in various roles, including International Fitness Presenter, Master Trainer, and Event Curator. Physical and mental fitness are always at the centre of her approach, and she prides herself on empowering people through movement and mindfulness. Her knowledge covers several disciplines, including dance, HIIT, and martial arts.
Sonja’s personal development has allowed her to apply spirituality to her work and training with clients, including through her own fitness-and-mindfulness event, HIITBOX. This live group empowerment experience allows her to reach people on a spiritual level through music, theatrics, exercise, martial arts, and meditation.
Currently you can find her based in Dubai as Barry’s Bootcamp ME’s Director of Performance, mentoring and educating trainers. Sonja also trains regularly in Thailand as a professional ‘Nak Muay’ and fights competitively in the ring against international Muay Thai fighters.