Over the last few decades, we have seen childhood physical activity levels decline across the globe. There is an associated increase in obesity, cardiovascular disease, and mental illness, simultaneously rising rapidly.
With this in mind, it is integral that we start to take those first few important steps to increase the activity levels of our children.
In doing so, we have the potential to set them up for a lifetime of success. We can do this by ingraining important exercise patterns and increasing health in the process. This is exactly where high-intensity interval training enters the discussion.
What is High-Intensity Interval Training?
High-intensity interval training (or HIIT for short) is a somewhat broad term. It describes a modality of aerobic exercise revolving around short periods of highly intense exercise. This is alternated with lower intensity recovery periods.
For example, you might choose to cycle for 30 seconds at a near maximal intensity. Then spend 60 seconds at a very low intensity for active recovery. This protocol could then be repeated for a total of 20 or 30 minutes to provide a very simple demonstration of HIIT.
Arguably one of the most positive implications of HIIT is that it allows you to get in a very solid workout in a very short amount of time. In fact, typical HIIT sessions will last about one-third of the duration of a traditional ‘low-intensity’ training session.
This means that you can obtain all the associated health benefits without such a large time commitment.
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What are the benefits of high-intensity interval training?
As you might have guessed (and much like many other forms of exercise), HIIT provides the body with a myriad of associated benefits.
First and foremost, it causes a huge spike in energy expenditure both during the activity and after the activity has been completed (Skelly, 2014). This has very positive implications for the management of weight, assisting in the loss of fat mass while simultaneously reducing the risk of becoming overweight or obese (Wewege, 2017).
With this comes associated declines in resting blood pressure and resting blood sugar, in conjunction with improvements in various markers of cardiovascular and metabolic health. This greatly lessens the chance of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes – both of which are becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s society (Kessler, 2012).
Finally, HIIT has also been shown to have a seriously positive impact on various aspects of mental health too.
Undertaking a HIIT exercise regime has been shown to cause an immediate improvement in mood, as well as associated reductions in feelings of stress and anxiety. This suggests that it may also play an important role in the maintenance of a good mental health state, while even assisting in the prevention of depression and anxiety (Heggelund, 2014).
What are the daily activity recommendations for children?
To gain an insight into how HIIT may benefit your children, it’s first important to outline how much physical activity children should be getting on a daily basis. To be completely honest, the answer might shock you.
While there are currently slight variations between the activity recommendations made by different countries, they all have one very common theme.
Children should get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity per day.
Yep. One hour. Per day.
Within this, a portion of the activity should regularly be of high intensity. It should also include something that promotes the strengthening of muscle and bone, such as jumping and bounding.
Children and high-intensity interval training
Taking the above into account, it is important to note that only one-fifth of children currently achieve that recommendation of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity per day (Hallal, 2012).
That’s a mere 20% of all children, for those of you playing at home.
Moreover, recent research has shown that school-based exercise interventions really only have a very small effect. Some add as little as an extra four minutes per day to the overall activity levels of children (Metcalf, 2012).
This means that we as adults are the ones who need to take those first key steps in ensuring that children meet those recommended guidelines, and subsequently receive the health benefits of daily physical activity – and I truly believe that HIIT may play a very important role in this.
What are the benefits of high-intensity interval training for children?
There is a growing body of evidence supporting the role of HIIT in managing health outcomes in children. The majority is overwhelmingly positive.
Much like its effect in adults, regular HIIT has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of weight gain and the subsequent development of childhood obesity. As the associated declines in physical activity levels that children have experienced across the globe has caused childhood obesity to rise at a rapid rate, this is extremely important (Ng, 2014).
Similarly, inactive children have been shown to be at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Additionally, they may have lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and are more likely to die a premature death.
All of which is not good (to say the least…).
But HIIT plays a rather obvious role in the reversal of this. It appears to do so with a lower total time commitment than traditional low-intensity physical activity such as walking, cycling, and jogging (Bond, 2017).
With all this in mind, it is important to note that some people might think that getting their child to perform any type of high-intensity activity is going to be a serious challenge – but the research would suggest otherwise.
HIIT Is More Enjoyable!
In fact, for the most part, HIIT tends to be perceived as being more enjoyable than lower intensity training alternatives. There are significant post-exercise feelings of reward, excitement, and success (Bond, 2017).
While this is certainly a positive in the short term, it may also contribute to the development of good exercise habits into adulthood. This development could have further positive health implications throughout the duration of the lifetime.
So, in short, HIIT means that your child will experience improvements in health and find the exercise itself more enjoyable.
A big win for high-intensity interval training in my mind.
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The perfect high-intensity interval training workout program for children
The key thing to consider here is that just because you want to introduce HIIT into your child’s weekly schedule, does not mean that it must be highly structured.
In fact, research suggests that incorporating high-intensity physical activity with some form of play may result in greater enjoyment than simply just exercising, while still exhibiting the exact same health benefits (Driediger, 2018).
This means small-sided games of basketball and football are great options, as are games like tag and all-over red rover. If you manage to incorporate some skipping, jumping, and bounding into these sessions, then you have a recipe for success.
Taking all of this into consideration, I have put together what I believe to be one of the best children friendly HIIT training workouts that you can implement, period.
Not to mention this session gives you the opportunity to play with your child, which can’t ever be a bad thing!
Take Home Message
And there you have it – the perfect child-friendly HIIT session!
High-intensity interval training is arguably one of the most health-positive exercises on the planet. Interestingly, while its role in adult health has long been established, it is only now being applied to children.
Within this, recent research would suggest that it appears to offer the perfect remedy for the declines in activity patterns we are now seeing globally. In other words, it can enhance fitness, help manage weight, improve health, and increase enjoyment – all simultaneously.
So, what are you waiting for? Try out a high-intensity interval training workout program with your child today, and start reaping the rewards!
Skelly, Lauren E., et al. “High-intensity interval exercise induces 24-h energy expenditure similar to traditional endurance exercise despite reduced time commitment.”. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 39.7 (2014): 845-848.
Wewege, M., et al. “The effects of high‐intensity interval training vs. moderate‐intensity continuous training on body composition in overweight and obese adults. A systematic review and meta‐analysis.” Obesity Reviews 18.6 (2017): 635-646.
Kessler, Holly S., Susan B. Sisson, and Kevin R. Short. “The potential for high-intensity interval training to reduce cardiometabolic disease risk.” Sports medicine 42.6 (2012): 489-509.
Heggelund, Jørn, et al. “High aerobic intensity training and psychological states in patients with depression or schizophrenia.” Frontiers in psychiatry 5 (2014): 148.
Hallal, Pedro C., et al. “Global physical activity levels: surveillance progress, pitfalls, and prospects.” The lancet 380.9838 (2012): 247-257.
Metcalf, Brad, William Henley, and Terence Wilkin. “Effectiveness of intervention on physical activity of children. Systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials with objectively measured outcomes (EarlyBird 54).” Bmj 345 (2012): e5888.
Ng, Marie, et al. “Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013. A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013.” The lancet 384.9945 (2014): 766-781.
Bond, Bert, et al. “Perspectives on high-intensity interval exercise for health promotion in children and adolescents.”. Open access journal of sports medicine 8 (2017): 243.
Driediger, Molly, et al. “Encouraging kids to hop, skip, and jump: Emphasizing the need for higher-intensity physical activity in childcare.”. Journal of Sport and Health Science 7.3 (2018): 333.