The Optimized Doctor

Tabata training


I’m in really good shape. Well, more like really not bad shape. I eat healthy food (see my previous column on diet) and work out nearly every day. I have done so for years. I’ve learned that working out doesn’t make much difference with my weight, but it makes a huge difference with my mood, even more so than meditating. That’s why I’ll never give it up.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

My approach is to vary my routine, typically by month. I’ve done “BUD/S qualification” months where I do only push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and runs to meet the minimum requirements for the Navy Seal Training. (It’s not as hard as you might think, although I’m pretty lenient on form.)

When I have an hour to exercise and I’m deep into a podcast, then I’ll just keep going. If I’m trying to work out a piece I’m writing, like this one, then I’ll go for a run along the harbor here in San Diego. If I have to catch an early flight or drive to LA for the day, then I might have only 15 minutes. In that instance, I do high-intensity sprints, also known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Although it’s hard to break a good sweat, these workouts are both challenging and rewarding.

Recently, I participated in a wonderful physician wellness program at Kaiser Permanente, San Diego, where, over several weeks, we learned about nutrition, practiced meditation, and did Tabatas. What’s a Tabata you ask? It’s a kick in the butt.

Tabata training is a type of HIIT training. Whereas HIIT workouts range from 15 to 45 minutes, Tabata workouts last 4 minutes. Yup, it’s a 4-minute workout that consists of 20 seconds of all-out, maximum effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest. The specific move you do for Tabatas is up to you, but it’s recommended that it be the same move for all 4 minutes. I like burpees which work your entire body – you jump, you drop into a push-up position, you pull your feet back in, and jump again. (Check out a video on YouTube.)

When we started the class, I thought Tabatas would be too easy for a gym rat like me. Plus, there were pediatricians, and even radiologists there, so how hard could they be? Let’s just say I couldn’t sit for 2 days after my first session: That’s how hard.

Tabatas are also a quick way to torch calories. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2013 found subjects who performed a 20-minute Tabata session experienced improved cardiorespiratory endurance and increased calorie burn (J Sports Sci Med. 2013 Sep;12[3]: 612-3).

Sometimes on a Monday, which is typically my difficult day, I’ll break out a few burpees in my office between patients. The energy jolt is real, and unlike caffeine, doesn’t leave me shaky. Because Tabatas require physical and mental focus, they’re an effective way to clear your mind after a grueling patient visit or if you’re feeling distracted. You simply can’t be thinking about that late patient or angry email when you’re jumping and lunging at full speed.

All the physicians in our program liked the Tabatas; many were even better than me. (Turns out we have pediatricians and radiologists who do things like run the Boston marathon and win Spartan races).

And if you start doing Tabatas, feel free to email me if you need a recommendation for a standing desk – you might not be able to sit as much afterward.


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