Physical activity is one of the most important actions that middle-aged and older adults can do to improve their health. The health benefits are tremendous. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one method of exercising and was named the #1 Fitness Trend in 2018. In a previous article we highlighted that HIIT performed on a regular basis is an effective way to benefit from regular exercise, including gaining muscle strength and endurance, lowering blood pressure and increasing cardiovascular health, to name a few.
So, is HIIT appropriate for older adults? If so, how effective is HIIT to protect against the losses in cardiovascular health and other changes in the body that occur with ageing? First, we will revise what HIIT is, and then highlight some research on its effectiveness in older adults.
What is HIIT?
HIIT involves short bursts of vigorous or intense exercise. The bursts of exercise can last a few seconds to several minutes and are interspersed with brief periods of low activity or rest. The key for optimal benefit is the short bursts of exercise need to be vigorous or high intensity, so that you are exercising at or above ~80% of your maximal effort. What this means is that on a scale of 0-10 in effort (0 = no effort and 10 = maximal effort) you need to be at about 8 or above. Examples can include 5-10 minutes of exercise involving sets of body-weight-supporting exercises such as sit ups, chair rising and air squats interspersed with a short break, or intense walking, running or cycling. HIIT can be a very time efficient approach to getting the required activity needed to gain fitness and health. HIIT typically results in increased strength, muscle endurance and has benefits for your cardiovascular system among other beneficial adaptations to the body and mind.
Is HIIT appropriate for older adults?
Yes. HIIT is very appropriate for older adults and highly effective in improving health. Research now shows that HIIT is a great ‘bang for buck’ for both young, middle-aged and older adults. Several recent studies indicate that HIIT is highly effective in improving health in older adults. One study for example, found greater health benefits for older adults (70-77 years) who undertook HIIT (short bursts of vigorous exercise reaching 90% of peak heart rate) at least twice a week over 5 years compared with those who did moderate-intensity exercise training (reaching ~70% of peak heart rate). One of the benefits was a lower risk of death.
Several studies show that adults with hypertension have large benefits from HIIT by lowering blood pressure and increasing cardiovascular fitness (oxygen consumption). Some studies also indicate that the increases in maximal oxygen consumption are larger after HIIT than moderate–intensity training.
Importantly, the benefits of HIIT are not just confined to fitness and cardiovascular health. A recent study reported that older adults (average age 68 years) who performed 6 weeks of HIIT had greater improvements in cognitive function and flexibility than moderate–exercise training, even though cardiovascular fitness increased similarly across both groups.
HIIT is here to stay, and research is proving why it is recommended for older adults. International physical activity recommendations include exercising at moderate intensity for 150 minutes a week, or at vigorous intensity for 75 minutes a week. While exercising moderately is highly beneficial, certainly including sessions of vigorous exercise for short bursts of high-intensity exercise is effective in improving many aspects of health in older adults. But remember, it is not just older adults who can benefit……. everyone can benefit from several sessions of HIIT a week!!
Where can I start?
The exercise challenges we highlighted before (links below) featuring strengthening, stretching and aerobic activities that can form the foundation of a HIIT workout. If you haven’t before, try them!
Challenge 1 7-Day strength-based exercises
Challenge 2 7-Day strength-based exercises
Challenge 3 6 Week aerobic exercise – running
Challenge 4 6 Week aerobic exercise – walking
Challenge 5 7-Day strength-based exercises
Challenge 6 7-Day strength-based exercises
Challenge 7 7-Day strength-based exercises