Using HIIT to Study Hard and Improve Concentration

If you could study for just minutes at a time and remember more, would you do it?

Athletes might hold the answer to this challenge. A concept called “high intensity interval training” (HIIT) has taken the exercise community by storm over recent years. Researchers noticed that it took less time to get better results if you push yourself very hard for small intervals. In a nutshell, the idea behind HIIT is to do minutes of sprinting instead of hours of jogging. Shockingly, the athletes who follow this regime tend to see better results not just in sprints, but in marathons as well.

The same science that makes HIIT work so well for athletes also makes it a perfect fit for students who want to improve their memory and studies (there’s a great deal of similarity between . Believe it or not, the best students spend less time studying because they study harder during each session. Using HIIT techniques is not easy, though. Here’s what Wikipedia says about HIIT workouts:

Usual HIIT sessions may vary from 4–30 minutes […] Researchers also note that HIIT requires “an extremely high level of subject motivation,” […] HIIT exercise sessions generally consist of a warm up period, then several repetitions of high intensity exercise separated by medium intensity exercise for recovery, then a cool down period. The high intensity exercise should be done at near maximum intensity.

The question is, how can we adapt HIIT techniques for learning and studying? What is the mental equivalent to sprint interval training? Trying to “study harder” is not as simple as working out harder. You can’t just “run faster” when you’re trying to study. Instead, try these extreme studying techniques to apply HIIT to your learning.

The Science of HIIT

High Intensity Interval Training sometimes sounds a bit too good to be true:

[…] this type of exercise not only provides performance benefits for athletes and improves the health of recreational exercisers, but it may also be a suitable alternative to endurance training, or continuous aerobic exercise. To improve cardiovascular fitness the belief has always been to increase the volume of exercise, whether it’s longer runs, bike rides, or extended time on an aerobic machine (e.g., stairstepper, elliptical, cycle, treadmill). The breadth of current research has revealed that HIIT improves numerous physiological parameters, often in less time when measured against high volume continuous exercise (Daussin et al., 2008).

sprint

It can be hard to figure out exactly why HIIT works so well, but the researchers above have some theories. One of the benefits is the fact that the body keeps working after the exercise (it takes longer for your breathing and heart rate to slow back down, since they’re elevated so high). Another explanation is the fact that pushing the body so much harder than normal actually leads to a qualitative difference, where the body is forced to react very differently since it’s so far away from “normal.”

All this might sound great, but how do we know that it works in studying? Actually, the benefits of pushing yourself harder when learning are well documented. This is the guiding principle behind the well-researched idea of deliberate practice, for example. Many effective learning techniques actually bear a striking resemblance to HIIT…

Using HIIT to Study Hard

In any training session (for both students and athletes), there are three parts: the warm-up, the core training, and the cool-down. In my post explaining why you shouldn’t study for more than 30 minutes or so at a time, I broke down these three phases of studying and explained how they each function. Skill jumps tend to happen in the warmup and cool-down, but the real growth happens during the core practice session itself.

To use HIIT in studying, start by designing a perfect practice session. Next, you’ll need to figure out what you will use as your “sprints” during the core training period in the middle. These should be difficult tasks which fatigue you quickly, and take only a minute or so to perform.

Examples of HIIT in Studying

When using HIIT with the guitar, I will play a difficult guitar riff over and over for my sprinting. Each play-through of the riff takes 20-40 seconds, and after each attempt I take my fingers off of the fretboard and stretch them out. Why? Because this “resets” my playing and gives me a brief rest interval. When I put my hand back, I need to find the correct position all over again (another important skill).

To use HIIT with foreign languages, you could take an audio file of a difficult conversation and break it up into individual phrases. Then, listen to each phrase and try to transcribe it as you listen, or to respond to the phrase aloud (if you prefer to work on your speaking). Re-read (or speak) your response after each trial, so that you have a chance to metacognate about what just happened, and rest a little before the next trial.

For school or exams, you could use pretesting as your HIIT sprint intervals. Pretesting has a lot of similarities to HIIT: it’s well-researched, proven effective, yet challenging (even frustrating!)

I’m sure you can imagine some other difficult “sprints” to use for your studies. To recap:

  1. Warm up with something familiar
  2. For your main exercise, use short sprints: very difficult tasks, even frustrating, less than a minute in length, and rest between each.
  3. Cool down (and consolidate) by putting it all back together again. Ideally, you use the cool-down to incorporate the learning into a bigger framework. For example, you should use the guitar riffs or foreign language sentences to practice the song or conversation as a whole.

Finally, remember that HIIT is supposed to be hard. As the researchers noted in the beginning, HIIT requires an “extremely high level of motivation” because it’s so challenging, so be sure to use the tricks to keep up your motivation to study.

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2 Comments

  1. liekkronoa -  July 19, 2015 - 6:10 am

    Have you compared this to Pomodoro by chance?

    • Zane Claes -  July 26, 2015 - 2:54 am

      Hm, how would you suggest performing the comparison in a meaningful way (non-subjective)? I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, either (they could/should be combined, actually).

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