Web entrepreneur Matt Lombardi said he just wanted to get into shape -- but it took only one session of the popular P90X workout series to send the 29-year-old to the hospital with rhabdomyolysis, a relatively rare condition he said his doctors told him occurs when muscle tissue breaks down to such an extent that toxins released into the blood stream can damage the kidneys.
"I was so sore I couldn't lift my arms and then I noticed my pee was the color of cola," Lombardi recalled. "After Googling P90X and my symptoms, I immediately made an appointment with a kidney specialist."
Fortunately, after a five-day hospital stay, the problem subsided and doctors told Lombardi there probably wouldn't be any lingering effects. However, Lombardi's experience may underscore the hazards of high-intensity interval training, or HIITS, an exercise and weight-loss trend that involves alternating bouts of extremely vigorous exercise with brief rest periods.
HIITs programs have exploded in popularity in the past few years. The P90X DVD series has sold more than 4.2 million copies, according to Beach Body, the company that distributes the program. Insanity, also by Beach Body, has sold more than 2 million copies. Cross Fit, another popular HIITs workout system, has, according to its website, more than 5,000 affiliate gyms in North America with thousands more on other continents.
Research suggests that HIITs may be a superior way to slim down and muscle up compared to the slow and steady "fat burning" workout style that has prevailed since the 1980s. For example, a recent study out of Australia found women who followed a 20-minute HIITs program lost six times more body fat than women who followed a 40-minute moderate-intensity cardio program.
In another recent study, Michele Olson, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama, determined that a HIITs-style method known as Tabata blasted an average of 13.5 calories per minute compared to a mere 6 to 8 calories per minute burned in the typical cardio program.
This is only part of the reason high-intensity workouts are so effective for weight loss, she said.
"High-intensity exercise also has the advantage of elevating your metabolic rate post-exercise for a period of time after you stop working out so you continue to burn fat and calories at a higher rate for a long time afterwards," Olson said. "Overall, it would take five times the amount of typical cardio exercise to shed the same number of calories you can in a four-minute Tabata."
Olson said that high-intensity training also does a better job strengthening the heart, increasing aerobic capacity and improving blood levels of fat, cholesterol and glucose.
However, Steve Edwards, the vice president of fitness and nutrition at Beach Body, said that despite marketing that depicts models who go from fat to fit by doing the company's workouts, programs like P90X were never intended for beginning exercisers.
"These were always meant to be 'graduate programs' from some of our other workouts," he said. "Our target audience may have been deconditioned when they started with us, but for P90X, we see them as someone who has been dedicated to another program for awhile and aspires to go further.
"This kind of workout was never intended for someone who is grossly overweight and who has been rooted to the couch for years," he added.