How to Use HIIT in Physical Education

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As an exercise physiologist, I’ve conducted a lot of research over the years. In 2017, I began investigating the latest safety information about various children’s activities such as weightlifting and stretching. This led me to wonder if high-intensity interval training (HIIT) was indeed safe for children (it is).

My HIIT research has expanded over the years, and I hope what I’ve discovered will be helpful if you want to use high-intensity interval training in physical education class.

HIIT 101: What Is It?

First, HIITs are highly variable. The first HIITs were done in a lab research project using 4-6 bouts of 30-second bursts of all-out intense cycling separated by a few minutes of rest.

However, HIIT workouts now include all types of burst activity such as:

  • sprinting
  • sport drills
  • calisthenics
  • games
  • combinations of the above

The American College of Sport Medicine (ACSM) states, “[HIITs] may range from 5 seconds to 8 minutes long and are performed at 80% to 95% of a person’s estimated maximal heart rate.”

Benefits of Doing HIIT in Physical Education

Why should health and physical educators incorporate HIIT?

Time.

HIIT provides all the benefits of moderate physical activity in about half of the time.

Teachers are frequently torn between spending available time on skill development or health and fitness outcomes.  They must enhance personal and social skills while also providing foundational sport skills. Perhaps they want to offer dance and rhythmic activities but also want to squeeze in international games, outdoor adventure, and cooperative activities.

Using HIIT in physical education class leaves more time for other PE outcomes.

Teacher and students doing High Steps as part of HIIT training

What the Lab Results Tell Us About HIIT

What we see in adults who participate in HIIT, we also see in children. The fact is that HIIT can have the same benefits as less intense, longer workouts — in half the time.

Here is a list of HIIT benefits that improve as much as the benefits from a moderately intense workout that lasts twice as long:

  • Increase in peak aerobic capacity (VO2max)
  • Increase in fat usage
  • Decrease in metabolic syndrome factors
  • Decrease in body fat
  • Decrease in blood triglyceride levels
  • Decrease in insulin resistance in obese children
  • Decrease in systolic blood pressure in obese children
  • Decrease in BMI
  • Decrease in waist circumference

We all know that a lab environment is nothing like a physical education class filled with school children. And, it’s important to know that there is not nearly as much research showing the benefits of in-school HIIT application. However, the good news is that the few studies that are published are showing similar results as the lab studies.

Recommendations for HIIT in physical education infographic

Recommendations for Using HIIT in Physical Education 

A typical HIIT workout in a middle or high school physical education class might look like this: 

  • Start HIIT stations with whole-body lower intensity exercises or a two-minute walk/jog warmup
  • On a signal, students begin with 30-45 seconds of mountain climbers (high intensity)
  • This is followed by 30 seconds of transition to a mat to perform crunches (low intensity)
  • Repeat the pattern of 30-45 seconds of high intensity activities X 30 seconds of low intensity for (7-15 minutes).

Follow this HIIT Menu for example workouts.

The HIIT Menu infographic

Select a balanced selection of each category. The exercises above can be adapted to accommodate younger children in elementary school. Once the HIIT is completed, the remainder of the PE class can used to accomplish other outcomes!

What Else to Consider Before Using HIIT in PE

  • From our observations, games-based HIITs seem to work better than callisthenic-based HIITs.
  • Allow time and feedback to adjust the workouts to those most popular with your unique class.
  • Excellent classroom management is essential to avoid the burpee “nap” station.
  • Increase the HIIT time to at least 15 minutes total of HIIT exercise if you want to show fitness and health benefits.
  • Use extrinsic and intrinsic motivational strategies to entice students to exercise at or very near their maximum (see Fig. 2).
HIIT Motivational Strategies Inforgraphic

To learn more, read “A Comprehensive Exploration into Utilizing High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) in Physical Education Classes,” which I coauthored with Amy Stringer. The article was published in the January issue of JOPERD.

Additional Resources


Resa Chandler
Resa Chandler

Resa Chandler, Ph.D. is currently an assistant professor teaching exercise physiology, health, and principles of weight training in the Health and Physical Education program at Western Carolina University. Her most recent interests include researching the effects of high-intensity interval training in children in a school setting as well as various topics in muscle physiology. She can be reached at tmchandler@wcu.edu.