High-Intensity Interval Training for the Mind
February 14 2012, by Martin Boroson
According to this article in the New York Times (“How 1-Minute Intervals Can Improve Your Health”), High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has significant physiological benefits.
HIIT is an approach to exercise that involves alternating short, intense bursts of exercise with equally short rest periods—for example, one minute on and one minute off—for a total of about twenty minutes.
Although athletes have been using HIIT to boost speed and endurance, according to new research, HIIT has other benefits, too. These include the improvement of blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity, improvement in the functioning of the blood vessels and heart, lowering the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and the “creation of far more cellular proteins involved in energy production and oxygen.”
The most attractive thing about HIIT, however, has to do with its user-friendliness. In general, the research subjects tested seemed more motivated to do HIIT than the longer, if less intense, forms of aereobic exercise typically recommended.
I was delighted to read about this research, not just because I am a fan of HIIT and do it regularly at the gym, but because short, intense physical training provides a wonderful metaphor for the short, intense mental training that I have been teaching, which I call “One-Moment Meditation.”
The key idea of One-Moment Meditation is that short, intense bursts of meditation have some significant benefits. And taking a short break after a short period of meditation (before you do another such period, or before you go back to everyday life) has some interesting benefits, too.
For many people, shorter forms of meditation are attractive because they fit more easily into a busy schedule. Shorter forms of meditation are attractive to people who have tried longer forms of meditation and “failed.”
Beyond that, as with HIIT, there seems to be some value in approaching these short intervals of meditation with intensity. Indeed, when I train people in the first exercise, which I call the Basic Minute, I actually encourage them to “go for it”—to put some oomph into it.
This may seem an unusual instruction for meditation: after all, most people think of meditation more in terms of relaxation than effort. But it is not uncommon to hear meditation teachers say that some energy and commitment is required. And for most of my trainees, the instruction to “go for it” is actually quite helpful. It encourages them to be optimistic—even enthusiastic—about the upcoming minute of meditation. To give it all they’ve got.
I also recommend to trainees that, after they complete their Basic Minute, they take a little “down time” to notice how it was for them. This mental recovery period, which I call the Cool-Down, has unique psychological benefits in its own right (even though it, too, is very short).
In the Cool-Down, people notice how much better they feel having done a minute of meditation, and what a pleasant effect was achieved in a short amount of time. This creates a very positive feedback loop, making them more likely to try this practice again sometime.
In addition, the recovery time gives them the opportunity to notice how they make the transition from a more “meditative” state of mind to the more “everyday” state of mind–a state of mind that is, in all likelihood, coming back soon. And as they are cooling down, they may even be able to notice which thoughts cause them to get stressed again, and choose not to pick those up or put them on. Thus the Cool-Down, although also brief, is quite valuable—a mindful minute in which there is often great learning, reflection and consolidation.
Note that One-Moment Meditation is not intended as a stepping stone to longer meditation, just as HIIT is not a stepping stone to running the marathon. (Nor is One-Moment Meditation intended to replace longer forms of meditation.) Rather, the point is to learn that you can change your state of mind quickly—that you can go from where you are to peacefulness in sixty seconds or less. So if you were to practice this simply in order to train for longer meditation, you would be missing the point.
Indeed, rather than being additive, One-Moment Meditation is actually subtractive. In other words, as trainees become more advanced, instead of adding adjacent minutes together to make a longer meditation, they reduce the length of the meditation, step by step, until they can do it in just a moment.
To my mind, those who can meditate in a moment, and can meditate at a moment’s notice, are true athletes of the mind. Psychologically and spiritually, they are strong, agile, and resilient, for they know that each and every moment offers them a fresh start–a new burst of vitality.
And when we are truly awake to this awareness–that this moment, right now, is offering us a fresh start, and that it takes no time to get there–then we are not just mental athletes. We are young at heart. And wise beyond our years.