Do short, intense workouts burn more fat?

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Recently, I came across an intriguing fitness article in The New York Times by Gretchen Reynolds. It was the day after Christmas, and I had opted for an extra hour of sleep instead of an early rise and loop around the park. Turns out it was a good time to read about 2013's most important fitness studies.

As a three-time marathon runner who is considering her fourth this spring, I am used to long workouts. A two-and-a-half hour endurance run during the peak of my training is standard. (So is an Epson Salts ice bath, compression socks, a stack of pancakes, and a serious nap immediately following one of those grueling training runs.) I'd managed to inadvertently lose weight while training and subsequently to keep it off by maintaining a decent level of fitness year-round, but I had never given much thought to short intense bouts of exercise.

It wasn't that I believed marathon training was the only way to get in shape, but I doubted that a 30-minute side-bar clutching uphill treadmill climb would result in much weight loss. So when I read that "volunteers who ran on a treadmill for a mere four minutes a week for 10 weeks raised their maximal oxygen uptake, or endurance capacity," I'll admit my curiosity was piqued.

Based on other health studies done throughout the year, Reynolds reports that "exerting yourself vigorously may have unique payoffs, compared with less strenuous exercise."

Given that I'd been finding it more and more challenging to get in my morning runs before work, I was beginning to appreciate the value of these studies, two of which also suggested that appetite decreases following strenuous exercise.

While I can understand the appeal of the brief hardcore workout, I tend to look for the happy medium in all things and, therefore, sought the advice and opinion of Soul Cycle instructor, Roger Smith, who has been bugging me to try one of his community spinning classes since last summer.

The majority of Soul Cycle's classes are 45 minutes long, which I think sounds reasonable. Smith calls the classes "extremely intense," and admits that you burn "so many calories" per session he can't even give an exact figure, but he also cautioned that people should not "expect extreme results just by working out." That means in spite of the bucketful of sweat lost in a given class, eating a whole pizza is not a just reward. In a Soul Cycle workout, your metabolism gets going and you are working out hard the entire time following the 4-7 minute warm-up, but according to this spinning guru, diet is just as important as exercise.

Reynolds's piece doesn't really discuss the merits of healthy eating as it coincides with exercise and weight loss, except to point out the unlikely way that vigorous activity affects hunger.

Smith agreed with the study's finding that appetite is blunted immediately after completing a hard exercise routine. For recovery purposes, Smith will often eat a banana until he feels ready for a full meal after he teaches a class. (I can easily relate to that as I am never hungry when I cross the finish line of a race.) Reynolds says she expects to cover this hunger issue in studies using a greater pool of people in the new year.

Even though it's clear that intensity of exercise is significant, "especially if you wish to complete your workout quickly," personally, I like the idea of mixing up my exercise regimen. So while I probably won't resort to performing super intense routines based on research's fat-burning findings, I'm sure Smith will see me in one of his studios soon enough.

The important thing to remember is that everyone is different. "Listen to your body," Smith solemnly offered. And more importantly, perhaps, is how the fitness studies of 2013 reviewed by Reynolds "emphasize how pervasive the impacts of any amount and type of exercise can be," which leads us to the conclusion that exercise should be an important part of one's lifestyle, regardless of the duration, intensity, or type. But if you're short on time, go hard and go home.

Click through the slideshow above for five intense cardio burst exercises.

More from Elizabeth Street:
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