Effective Ways to Improve Fitness and Lose Weight When in a Time Crunch

Women in Sport professional personal trainer working out

9 minReading time

Wished you had more time to go to the gym, or go out running in order to lose those extra kilos/lb? Or maybe you wished it would be easier running up the stairs at work or maybe catch the bus last minute on a busy morning, but feel you just don’t have the time to spend several hours per week training? Then this article is for you! You will learn how to get in shape in no time (requires effort though).

Define your goal

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First thing first, in order to be able to be really effective in our training or diet we have to specify our goal. When we have figured out our goal, we need to find an efficient plan for reaching our goal.

There is a difference between doing something effectively and doing something efficiently. Being effective means that you are focusing on a desired effect, however, this does not mean that you are doing the most optimal intervention to reach that effect. For example, if your goal is to be the best pianist in the world it doesn’t help if you are practising keyboard-typing in an optimal way, sure you might improve your finger skills somewhat but improving the piano playing? Meh, probably not that impressive.

Being efficient on the other hand means that you are practising in an optimal way, utilizing specific tools with a minimum waste, without unnecessary effort. We want to be both effective and efficient, i.e. have a clear goal that we pursue and also create a plan to reach that goal in an optimal way, specific for us and our conditions.

How do we apply this to our weight loss and fitness goal you might ask?

Let’s begin by looking at a few common goals. Your goal might be to lose weight in a short time, or to lose weight and keep it off, improve your endurance or just become healthier.

In addition to setting your goal, you also have to have a realistic time frame and also to specify how much time and effort you are willing to spend on this goal. You have to ask yourself, “How high does this goal fall on my priority list?”.

Other aspects to consider include, current fitness level, family obligations, previous and current injuries, health conditions, time to spend on training/nutrition, financial situation etc. In many of these situations it´s vital to both be effective and utilize an efficient plan.

If losing weight is your goal but you feel you don’t have enough time to train as much as you would like, maybe it would be better to focus on reducing the calorie intake. It´s easier and less time consuming to eat 500 Cal less than to burn 500 Cal by exercising.

With all this said, there are some training methods that can be utilized when trying to get in shape, improve endurance, fitness and lose weight that are both time efficient and give great results. One such method is called high intensity interval training, or HIIT in short. The name already hints what it is, interval training performed with high effort or intensity, basically hard but short.

HIIT, what is it?

Young athletic woman exercising outdoors: running up the stairs

High intensity interval training can basically include all activities performed at high intensity interspersed with rest periods (or periods of lower intensity) of varying lengths. For example, Tabata intervals is a type of HIIT.

Another protocol used a lot in studies that have been shown to elicit many beneficial effects uses interval periods of 30 seconds all out/maximal effort activity followed by a 4.5 min rest period. This is then repeated 4-6 times. Three weekly sessions are usually used in the studies. Thus, a weekly time commitment of ~10 min (~1.5 h including rest) is required (1).

HIIT, what are the benefits?

Japanese sport man stretching outdoors in the early morning, city park on the background, she is wearing a smartwatch.

HIIT have recently gotten more attention among the scientific community with many new studies being published. This is understandable since HIIT have shown promising results and requires minimum time commitment, thus being an attractive exercise regimen in today’s busy world with an increasing problem of obesity and metabolic diseases.

Some of the potential benefits of regularly engaging in HIIT include:

  • Decreased waist circumference, blood pressure, body fat percentage, heart rate, fasting glucose, cardiorespiratory fitness and increased maximal oxygen uptake in overweight individuals (2) and increased maximal oxygen uptake, cardiorespiratory fitness, and insulin sensitivity in sedentary individuals (3) as well as increased mitochondrial content (organelles in the cells responsible for generation of energy)

The increase in cardiorespiratory fitness is an especially important benefit since a low cardiorespiratory fitness is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.

HIIT, what protocol to use?

Women in Sport professional personal trainer working out

A protocol that has been suggested and used in many studies can be seen in table 1. This session is usually performed 3 times per week. However, there are many other protocols resulting in beneficial results and the exercise used can also be varied.

HIIT, what type of exercise?

Sportswoman exercising with resistance band, with copy space

As mentioned above, the type of exercise should be relatively specific to your goal. For example, if your goal is to improve running speed, then doing hill sprints or regular sprints might be more beneficial.

On the other hand, if you need to perform an exercise more easily performed inside, a spin class bike might be your best choice, or if an injury prevents you from running or biking, rowing is a good option.

Another benefit of the spin class bike when doing HIIT is that you can increase and decrease the resistance/load fast (as opposed to a treadmill) which makes it easy to reach a challenging resistance in a short time and to push oneself. Also, on a bike you don’t risk the possibility of not keeping up with the speed on the treadmill when fatigue sets in (and it definitely will if you go all out for 30 s).

Both running and cycling seems to be effective in overweight individuals in decreasing fat mass, with a slight edge to running (4).

Who is HIIT for and not for?

Young athletic woman exercising outdoors: plank for total body strength

HIIT is really taxing, uncomfortable and requires a lot of effort during a very short amount of time, which is part of its charm.

It results in great benefits and requires a very short amount of time, the price you have to pay on the other hand is a few minutes of gruelling all out focus and effort. For some it might not be worth the pain, for others it´s the best thing ever, since it lets them keep in shape while still juggling a lot of other things at the same time.

HIIT has, as mentioned above, shown great benefit in an overweight/obese population and it is therefore an interesting option in this group.

In general, individuals with uncontrolled diabetes type II or hypertension, or individuals recently undergone cardiac events (e.g. myocardial infarction) are probably better of avoiding HIIT. Instead, these individuals should first start building up their fitness slowly with less intense sessions (4).

Endurance athletes and HIIT

Sport and fitness runner man running on racetrack training for the winner and target.

In order to become the best endurance athlete, you also have to perform the long-distance training, you have to build up your capacity for doing continuous work during a long time. It has been proposed that elite endurance athletes (e.g. cyclists, cross-country skiers, runners) do best performing most of their training in the low-intensity zone and the rest in the high intensity zones with interval sessions, called polarized training (1). This allows the athletes to adapt to the longer endurance-type requirements and at the same time reap the benefits of HIIT.

How to make HIIT more enjoyable

Women in Sport professional personal trainer working out

Performing all-out HIIT sessions is hard. Your body will struggle to get enough oxygen to supply your cells. The high work-rate you have to reach makes your body utilize energy systems that don´t require oxygen. This results in a build-up of lactate, sensation of pain and fatigue sets in. However, there is a way to make HIIT a bit more pleasurable (or at least more tolerable ;). Listening to music is one such method. Listening to music can actually increase enjoyment and performance (5). So, don’t forget your music player on your next HIIT session.


Young athletic woman exercising outdoors: crunch for abdominal strength

HIIT is a training modality where physical activity is performed at high effort with rest periods interspersed between the periods of activity. HIIT seems to be an equally effective method for improving insulin sensitivity, cardiorespiratory fitness, and skeletal muscle mitochondrial content as moderate intensity training performed continuously. However, HIIT is much more efficient in producing these beneficial effects with a lot less time commitment.

HIIT thus, not only improve your ability to perform daily physical tasks but also improves your health while not requiring nearly as much time commitment as many other forms of exercise.

Fredrik Wernstål is a final year medical student with a passion for nutrition, training, performance and health. His goal is to help people reach a healthier and happier life by providing research-based advice.

  1. Gibala MJ, Little JP, Macdonald MJ, Hawley JA. Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease. J Physiol. 2012 Mar 1;590(5):1077–84.
  2. Batacan RB, Duncan MJ, Dalbo VJ, Tucker PS, Fenning AS. Effects of high-intensity interval training on cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention studies. Br J Sports Med. 2017 Mar;51(6):494–503.
  3. Gillen JB, Martin BJ, MacInnis MJ, Skelly LE, Tarnopolsky MA, Gibala MJ. Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment. PloS One. 2016;11(4):e0154075.
  4. Maillard F, Pereira B, Boisseau N. Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training on Total, Abdominal and Visceral Fat Mass: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Med Auckl NZ. 2017 Nov 10;
  5. Stork MJ, Kwan MYW, Gibala MJ, Martin Ginis KA. Music enhances performance and perceived enjoyment of sprint interval exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015 May;47(5):1052–60.

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