Supercharge your workout with high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
You’ve probably seen the term “HIIT” sprinkled around workout videos or gym classes. No, it’s not a new style of boxing. It’s short for “high-intensity interval training.” HIIT exercise routines involve short bursts of more intense activity (such as picking up the pace for 30 seconds during a walk) followed by slower activity as your body recovers.
This fitness trend has captured the attention of exercise scientists, personal trainers, and fitness buffs. (There are even HIIT routines you can do with your dog.)
Lately, though, experts have turned their attention to the benefits of HIIT for midlife and older adults. And there are plenty. Recent research shows that HIIT routines geared toward older adults don’t just help with weight loss and fat loss. They can also boost fitness, improve heart health, and lower blood sugar.
Briefly speeding up as you walk, ride your exercise bike, swim laps, or jog adds a fun challenge that breaks up exercise boredom, says Kim Starkey, a certified personal trainer based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Starkey specializes in older adult fitness and corrective exercise. And you don’t have to sprint like an Olympic athlete to do a HIIT routine. Adding a few bursts of slightly faster movement is enough to get started, according to researchers.
“Doing HIIT doesn’t have to mean an intense exercise class,” Starkey says. “It can be going for a walk with hills or just picking up your pace for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, bringing it back down, then picking up the pace again. Even walking around your house or apartment and speeding up for short bursts is helpful.”
Anatomy of a HIIT workout
A typical HIIT routine starts with a warm-up for a few minutes, followed by your first high-intensity burst. You speed up for a few seconds to a few minutes, then slow down to your usual pace for a minute or so to recover. You repeat those speed-up and slow-down cycles several times, then cool down.
Studies have shown that HIIT routines as short as 15 minutes have health benefits. You can also work a few rounds of HIIT into a longer walk or other exercise routine, Starkey says. In studies of older adults, HIIT routines are typically done two to three times per week. On in-between days, you might do a steady-paced routine or strength training.
“It’s okay to do a short HIIT routine every day, but a longer or more intense routine should be done two to three times a week, with time to recover in between,” Starkey says.
Adding bits of vigorous activity to an exercise routine gives your heart, lungs, muscles, and blood vessels a more intense workout that yields bigger benefits than working out at a steady, moderate pace, researchers report. It even benefits your brain by prompting the release of compounds called growth factors. These help maintain and enhance brain function, in part by encouraging the growth of new brain cells, researchers note.
Blue Medicare Advantage Members can complete a HIIT program at their local SilverSneakers gym!
Health benefits of HIIT
The health benefits of HIIT workouts for older adults include:
A memory boost. In one small study, older adults who didn’t exercise regularly started a 12-week fitness program. It focused on stretching, an aerobic exercise routine at a steady pace, or a HIIT routine of treadmill walking. Researchers found that the HIIT group got the biggest improvements on memory tests, with scores increasing by as much as 30%. HIIT may help memory by encouraging the growth of new, active brain cells.
A fitness upgrade. A study of men in their 60s and 70s who exercised three days a week for six weeks found that those who followed a HIIT routine had bigger improvements in VO2 max — a measure of oxygen consumption during an intense workout — than those who did a steady-paced routine or resistance-training exercises. HIIT exercisers also saw the biggest improvements in a test of mental flexibility, increasing their ability to switch quickly between two different brain-teaser puzzles.
Bonus weight and fat loss. In a study of older women, those who followed a HIIT routine for eight weeks without dieting lost more weight and more body fat than those who did steady-state routines or didn’t exercise at all. In other studies, HIIT and steady-paced exercise produced similar weight and fat loss, but HIIT-ers got the benefit from shorter workouts.
Why the weight-loss boost? Your muscles work harder when you speed up for a high-intensity burst, burning more calories and more fat, according to the American Council on Exercise.
Better blood pressure. Researchers found that older adults’ systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) fell nine points after a six-week HIIT program on stationary exercise bikes. Participants in the study did a 15-minute routine three times a week:
- 2-minute warm-up
- 5 sets of one minute of fast cycling followed by 90 seconds of slower cycling
- 3.5 minutes of slow cycling to cool down
The researchers say the blood pressure drop would be enough to reduce the risk of a heart attack by 21% and cut stroke risk by 41%.
Lower blood sugar. HIIT could be a great exercise option for people with diabetes. In one study, a group of people with diabetes in their 50s, 60s, and 70s spent 30 minutes doing a HIIT routine on the treadmill. Other groups took a moderate walk or just sat and took it easy. Those with the lowest blood sugar levels? The HIIT group. Researchers say that’s because those bursts of intense exercise activate more muscle fibers, helping muscle cells take in more blood sugar for energy.
Five ways to HIIT it
Have you been spending lots of time on the couch? Do you have a health condition? Would starting a HIIT routine be a big change from your usual exercise program? If so, the National Institute on Aging recommends that you talk with your doctor first about whether you should avoid or limit some activities and whether a health condition will affect how you exercise.
When you’re ready, try these five strategies for easing into HIIT:
- Build HIIT into your walking routine. Researchers in the HIIT and memory study say you can easily incorporate HIIT into a walk by choosing a route with hills. Or simply speed up for short periods as you pass landmarks such as telephone poles or streetlight posts. (You might speed up as you walk from one post to the next, slow down as you pass the next three posts, then speed up again, for example.)
- Start small. Begin by speeding up just a little, for half a minute or so, Starkey says. Then slow down until you feel ready to speed up again. Repeat a few times as you’re able. You can always speed up even more or add more or longer high-intensity intervals as your body gets used to this new routine.
- Add HIIT to any aerobic workout. It works for walking, running, swimming, riding your bike outdoors, or pedaling at home in front of the TV. Or add it when you use other types of aerobic workout equipment such as a rower, ski machine, or stair stepper. Here’s how to do it: Warm up for five minutes or so. Then pick up the pace for 20 to 30 seconds. Slow down to your normal speed for 90 seconds or until you feel your breathing and heart rate slow down, then pick up the pace again. Try doing three to four speed-up and slow-down sets, then cool down. “Even a HIIT routine that lasts just 10 minutes can be beneficial,” Starkey says.
- Create your own HIIT exercise routine. Just speed up and slow down as you do a couple of rounds of at-home exercises such as sit-ups, jumping jacks, marching in place, and toe touches, Starkey suggests. Want to HIIT with your dog? Try playing fetch and doing exercises such as the ones listed above while Fido scampers after the ball.
- Consider a high-intensity, low-impact class. Workouts that boost intensity but use bone- and joint-protecting low-impact moves can be especially helpful for older adults who want fitness and health benefits while reducing risk for injuries. Look for low-impact exercise classes, water workouts, and classes that use equipment such as exercise bands. Be sure to ask the instructor or gym manager about the intensity and impact level — and mention any health concerns you may have.
Review of research on HIIT training in older adults: Sports Medicine
Study on HIIT training and memory: Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism
Study on HIIT training and fitness outcomes: Brain Sciences
Study on HIIT training and weight loss: BMJ Open Sports & Exercise Medicine
Why HIIT helps you lose weight: American Council on Exercise
Study on HIIT training and blood pressure: Age and Ageing
Study on HIIT training and blood sugar: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Exercise guidance for older adults: National Institute on Aging
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