Multiple studies describe the benefits of intensity training for older adults. This column describes the research and benefits. A future column will describe how to do intensity training and have sample workouts.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) “The recent enthusiasm for interval-based exercise can be traced to research from Canada and Europe in the early 2000s. The research in Canada started with exercise protocols that required participants to pedal at an all-out intensity for 30 seconds before recovering for a few minutes and then doing it again and again several more times. In contrast, the European research utilized relatively long but less intense intervals in cardiac patients. Findings from these studies demonstrated that interval-based exercise is a powerful tool for improving exercise performance and health.”
The Norwegian Study
Research published in 2020 by a group of exercise scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway suggests that including high-intensity training (HIT) gives better protection against premature death than moderate workouts alone. The scientists studied 1,500 healthy active men and women for five years. They divided the volunteers into three groups:
- The control group followed the standard activity guidelines to do aerobic activity for half an hour most days.
- Another group began exercising moderately for longer sessions of 50 minutes at 70% of max heart rate twice a week.
- The third group started a program of twice-weekly HIT, during which they cycled or jogged at 90% of max heart rate for four minutes, followed by four minutes of rest, with that sequence repeated four times.
Almost everyone checked in with the scientists periodically and kept up their assigned exercise routines for five years.
“After five years about 4.6 percent of all of the original volunteers had passed away during the study, a lower number than in the wider Norwegian population of 70-year-olds, indicating these active older people were, on the whole, living longer than others of their age. The men and women in the high-intensity-intervals group were about 2 percent less likely to have died than those in the control group, and 3 percent less likely to die than anyone in the longer, moderate-exercise group. People in the moderate group were, in fact, more likely to have passed away than people in the control group. The men and women in the interval group also were more fit now and reported greater gains in their quality of life than the other volunteers.” (New York Times: The Secret to Longevity? 4-Minute Bursts of Intense Exercise May Help)
Two percent less likely to die prematurely may not seem like a lot; however, increased longevity results from many factors. When each factor reduces risk by a couple of percentage points the cumulative risk reduction can be significant.
In another study researchers at the University at Buffalo put elderly mice through a three-month program of high-intensity interval running. The mice were the rodent equivalent of about age 65 in people. These mice had all been sedentary. They divided the mice into two groups:
- The control group continued with their normal, sedentary lives.
- The experimental group sprinted uphill for one minute followed by a minute of walking, with that interval repeated four times. These interval sessions continued three times a week for four months, which would approximate about eight years in our lives.
- The sedentary group had less muscle mass, strength and endurance than four months before and moved more infrequently and slowly.
The interval-trained mice were stronger, had greater endurance capacity, more muscle mass in their hind legs than the sedentary animals, and they scampered faster. (New York Times High-Intensity Workouts May Be Good at Any Age)
An article in Medical News Today lists these benefits:
- Reducing body fat According to a 2012 study high intensity exercise may decrease body fat more than steadier types of exercise, such as jogging. A more recent study found HIIT workouts may help people burn more calories in less time than steadier forms of exercise. The harder you exercise the more calories you burn per minute. Hard exercise also results in a higher metabolic rate for a while after the workout.
- Improving cardiovascular and metabolic health High intensity exercise may help improve cardiovascular health in healthy people, as well as in those with cardiovascular conditions. High intensity exercise may improve blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol. A 2015 study found that a 10-week program of high intensity workouts produced cardiovascular and metabolic benefits that were similar to those of moderate intensity workouts.
- Improving age-related decline in muscle mitochondria Mitochondria are the parts of muscle cells in most cells, in which the biochemical processes of respiration and energy production occur. Maintaining mitochondrial density is one of the keys to maintaining physical performance.
- Improving memory A 2019 study suggests “aerobic exercise may enhance memory in older adults, with the potential for higher intensity exercise to yield the greatest benefit.”
- Time efficient Consistency is one of the most important factors in slowing and even reversing the effects of aging. Perceived lack of time is one of the most common barriers to consistent exercise. High intensity exercise is an efficient way to work out. According to a 2014 study a commitment of just 30 minutes three times a week could be beneficial.
- Improved motivation Because hard workouts take much less time participants are more likely to exercise.
- Improving mental health Although all exercise may benefit mental health a 2019 study suggests HIIT training may be especially helpful in addressing issues like depression.
Many of the above studies were of small groups and researchers suggest more research is needed. The initial finidings are promising.
It’s All Good
The studies of Norwegians and mice both focused on different forms of high intensity interval training (HIIT). The ACSM article continues, “The important idea behind all forms of HIIT is providing an intense phase of exercise followed by a period of recovery. Each phase can range from a few seconds to a few minutes and are conducted across a range of intensities. The number of ways that HIIT can be configured is almost too numerous to count and perhaps this multitude of options is one of the reasons that so many people across a wide range of age, fitness and exercise experience seem to prefer this form of exercise over continuous exercise. Though planning and implementing HIIT is somewhat more complex than continuous exercise, its flexibility makes it a very attractive option for both new exercisers and the hardcore fitness junkie.” (ACSM Interval-based exercise: So many names, so many possibilities)
High intensity exercise doesn’t have to be intervals. Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. A fartlek workout mixes harder and easier exercise in a random, perhaps playful, way. Yesterday I was cross-country skiing mostly at an aerobic pace. On some of the climbs I upped the tempo until I was breathing hard. Both structured intervals and fartlek work. Listening to music riding the trainer with your pace determined by the different tempos is another example. Watching TV and riding hard during the commercials is another example.
Not Just High Intensity
You need to exercise at least four days of the week. A number of benefits, especially better blood sugar and blood pressure levels only occur on days when we exercise. However, because high intensity workouts are so hard you need multiple days of recovery so don’t do more than two high intensity workouts a week. If you decide to include high intensity workouts do moderate aerobic activities on most other days of the week.
Intervals Meet Exercise Recommendations for Older Adults
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publication Physical Activity for Americans, 2nd ed., is an update of the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) on Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults. The guidelines recommend:
- 2 hours and 30 minutes to 5 hours a week of moderate-intensity. Exercising at this intensity produces noticeable increases in breathing rate and heart rate. Additional health benefits result from even more moderate-intensity aerobic activity than five hours a week.
- 1 hour and 15 minutes to 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Exercising at this intensity produces large increases in a person’s breathing and heart rate.
- An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Note that in a workout mixing high intensity and moderate recovery only the time riding hard counts as vigorous activity, not the whole workout.
You can read more in my column Anti-Aging: New Exercise Recommendations.
Words of Caution
Before jumping into high intensity exercise talk with your health care provider. Look for programs at YMCAs or local gyms. Some offer high intensity classes specifically for older participants and led by instructors with training in geriatric exercise.
- Anti-Aging: Benefits of Training with Intensity
- 6 Kinds of Intensity Training Which One Is Right for You
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes chapters on how to meet the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations on aerobic, high intensity aerobic, strength training, weight-bearing exercises, balance and flexibility. I include sample weeks and months for different types and amounts of exercise. I give you plans to build up to 100 km and 100-mile rides. I include a plan to increase over two years your annual riding from around 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) a year. You can easily modify the plans for different annual amounts of riding. I discuss the importance of recovery and how to gauge if you are getting enough recovery. I combine the different kinds of training into programs that balance training and recovery. The 106-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.