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New Year, New You: Could the Best Exercise for Seniors Be High-Intensity Interval Training?

According to a recent study, HIIT workouts aren't just for seasoned, younger athletes. They can also help older adults booster their fitness.

You may have heard about the benefits of high-intensity interval training, also called HIIT. With HIIT, you do an intense cardio workout for a few minutes and then slow down for a recovery. You repeat that cycle a couple of times during your workout. You can do HIIT with all types of cardio workouts, including walking, running, and cycling. Many people do HIIT workouts because they are save time and are said to help metabolism and calorie burning.

You may think that HIIT workouts are only for seasoned, younger athletes. As it turns out, HIIT could help older adults boost their fitness, according to a recent study published in BMJ.

The study, a randomized controlled trial completed in Norway, included more than 1,500 older adults born between 1936 and 1942. The study participants were between 70 and 77 years old during the study. Participants were randomly grouped to complete two sessions of HIIT. During this time, they did four minutes of exercise at 85% to 95% of their peak heart rate followed by four minutes of exercise at 60% of maximum heart rate. They did this for four rounds.

A second group trained at a steady, moderate pace for 50 minutes at about 70% of peak heart rate. A third group, considered the control group, followed Norway’s national guidelines for physical activity for five years.

The study goal was to find out if HIIT lowered mortality more than moderate intensity continuous training. Although the study did not find a mortality difference between the control group and the other two exercise groups, there was a trend toward lower mortality in the HIIT group.

There were some additional benefits. “Both physical and mental quality of life were better in the high-intensity group after five years than in the other two groups. High-intensity interval training also had the greatest positive effect on fitness,” according to Dorthe Stensvold, study author and professor in the Cardiac Exercise Research Group at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

This study, along with other research done by Stensvold and colleagues, supports the idea that exercise can lengthen life for older adults. Stensvold shared the following thoughts about HIIT in a press release: “By high intensity, we mean training that gets you really sweaty and out of breath. Now our hope is that the national recommendations for physical activity will be modified to encourage older people even more strongly to do high intensity training—either as their only form of exercise or to supplement more moderate training.” 

A previous study from Mayo Clinic also found that HIIT helped to slow down and reverse aging at a cellular level, according to AARP.

HIIT for Older Adults

If you’d like to take lessons from the study in Norway to boost your fitness routine in 2021 and incorporate more HIIT, here are a few tips:

  • Check with your doctor before you begin any new fitness routine. This is especially important if you have chronic health problems such as heart disease.
  • Consider working with a personal trainer to get you started. Once you’re safely cleared for HIIT by a health provider, a personal trainer can give you tailored advice for HIIT workouts that are suitable for you and give you exact timings and routines. A personal trainer also may first recommend that you build up your strength with weights before performing HIIT, especially if you aren’t currently active.
  • Start slow. If you jump (pun intended) too fast into HIIT, you could injure yourself. Follow any guidelines for a slow start to HIIT.
  • Aim for just one to two HIIT workouts a week. That should be all you need to reap its benefits, according to Mayo Clinic. In between you can do other light to moderate exercise. 
  • Look for HIIT classes geared toward older adults. If you can take part in group activities, a HIIT exercise class for older adults can help safely guide you through a workout. You also can find HIIT workouts for seniors online.

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