This is the secret to a fitter body and faster metabolism
Have you tried high altitude training?
I had been at the cross-trainer for all of six minutes and I was already gasping for air. Physically, my body was in neutral, pushing my legs in a leisurely rhythm. Mentally, I had never been more confused. I’m no gym bunny, but I do not struggle with exercise. This time, my face had given my breathlessness away because fitness expert and Pilates trainer Namrata Purohit gently turned to me to say, “Relax, this is just a 10-minute warm-up,” before casually instructing her colleague, “Another 25 minutes should be good for day one—take it easy on her.” What had I signed up for? And exactly how delusional had I been about my fitness levels?
I was in the ‘altitude chamber’ at Purohit’s Pilates and Altitude Training Studio (Pilatesaltitude.com) that Namrata runs with her father and fitness expert Samir Purohit. For a moment, I had let its familiar appearance fool me. It is not entirely unlike other gyms—a treadmill, cross-trainer, step-board and power-plate occupy one corner. But then, there is the TV screen displaying suspicious statistics like, “Oxygen level: 14%. Height: 4,000 metres.” This is what sets the special hypoxic training or altitude training room apart—the oxygen levels here are artificially lowered to provide a more optimum (read: harsher) environment for your workout. Don’t imagine controlled suffocation, but more like rarefied mountain air.
“This training method was discovered during the 1968 Mexico Olympics [held in Mexico City, which is 1,950 metres above sea level]. That year, athletes broke a number of records in long jump and track events since they had all trained at a higher altitude for days before the Olympics began,” Samir explained to me. “Researchers realised that training in lower oxygen levels at that altitude had given them an edge.”
Until a few years ago, mostly elite athletes like the US Olympic swimming team and the Indian national cricket team were reaping the benefits of exercising in lower-than-usual oxygen levels. Now, Altitude Training System (ATS) has become a fitness fad that’s gained a reputation for its kilo-shedding effects.
The science behind it is simple: these rooms are built to simulate a higher altitude by reducing the oxygen levels (the air pressure and temperature remain the same). Training in a room at 14 per cent oxygen, compared to the regular 20.9 per cent (at sea level), might not feel like a huge difference, until you get moving. When our muscles and cells have access to lower oxygen levels, the body adapts to improve its oxygen use and increases energy production (and burns twice as many calories). Due to the accelerated performance of your body, five minutes on the treadmill in one of these rooms can feel like 20—even for the fittest of the lot. This increases your endurance levels and makes indulging in a sport or workout in the regular environment only that much easier.
Fifteen minutes into my session, the idea of less oxygen and aerobic exercise was beginning to spell doom. Determined to hold it together, and as a consolation, I asked Namrata if anyone had ever blacked out due to the intensity of this technique. She clipped a pulse meter to my finger and said, “That rarely happens since we constantly monitor the heart rate and the oxygen saturation in your body. If the oxygen dips too low, or someone feels dizzy, they are asked to step outside the room for a few minutes.”
My saturation levels had gone down from the standard 95 per cent to 92 (a good sign, I was told)—for the best results, it should linger between 90 and 85 per cent, which meant pushing myself even harder. “Even your heart rate is up with little effort. See how wonderfully the human body performs in these conditions?” Namrata chimed in. The wonderful part I wasn’t too sure about; my throat was parched, my breathing was laborious and I continued wheezing through three reps of vigorous jumping jacks.
Maximising high altitude training
To keep boredom at bay, Samir and Namrata recommend opting for different routines during ATS, usually involving a mix of cardio on the treadmill or cross-trainer, functional training, kick-boxing and even some Pilates. There’s no room for weights in here. “You can follow almost any routine that increases your heart and metabolic rate. It’s mostly repetitive actions, like running or jumping that are most effective,” Samir said. “Other than the calories burnt, your body will continue producing the same amount of energy for the next 12-15 hours, as compared to a regular workout, where your heart rate and metabolism return to normal within 30 minutes.”
My mind was ready for me to stop at this point, but my body was miraculously showing no signs of slowing down. A round of burpees and 10 minutes of kick-boxing later, my muscles weren’t shaking involuntarily. My arms didn’t quiver and my legs felt steadier with every squat and kick.
“We tend to equate a good workout with being exhausted. But here you are putting in minimum effort for maximum physiological changes,” said Samir. A quicker metabolic rate, healthier sleep pattern, improved breathing, stabilised sugar and hunger levels are just some of the payoffs he listed. Pop singer Manasi Scott, who was on the treadmill next to me, pitched in, “My skin always looks better after an altitude session. I’ve even seen it affect my cellulite.” Every few weeks, Scott pops in for a session she started six years ago) and loves it for how efficient it is. “If I can get better results within the same hours I spend on a regular workout, then why not?”
By the time I finished my 35-minute turmoil, with a series of stretches to mark its glorious end, I couldn’t help but triumphantly admit that it was ‘not so bad’ and something I would ‘definitely try again’. It’s not everyday you get to earn a metabolism to tackle cheesy fries without sore muscles—even if it was only for a few hours.