In recent years scientists have realized the benefits of short bursts of intense exercise, and a new study shows that if elderly people adopt this principle and exercise intensely for just two minutes a week, they could see significant benefits.
The research, carried out by scientists at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, and published this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, sought to answer whether the benefits of High Intensity Training (HIT), sometimes called High Intensity Interval Training, that have been demonstrated in multiple studies, might also benefit the elderly — a group that has never been tested while on this kind of program.
HIT essentially means doing very intense exercise for short bursts of time, with relatively long rest periods in between. Its reputation is perhaps most familiar to regular gym goers as the fitness industry currently preaches it as one of the easiest (though I use that term loosely) ways to shed fat. It often involves running, cycling or other high impact cardiovascular activity at close to a person’s maximum output.
In this latest research, a sample of pensioners were divided into two separate groups, one that would act as a control and wouldn’t do any of the high intensity exercise, and the other that would take part in two high-intensity training sessions per week. The training sessions saw the pensioners engage in 6-second all-out sprints on an exercise bike. At first they engaged in 6 rounds of the 6 second sprints. That was later increased to 10 rounds of 6 second sprints. They were given at least one minute of recovery time per sprint, and the exercisers were all monitored throughout the exercise regime. They were only allowed to sprint again once their heart rates had dropped below 120 bpm, which would be the upper limit for the average person over 65.
The researchers found that, based on tests they did prior to the group commencing the exercise program and after the fact, the participants who engaged in the HIT program exhibited significant improvements in their overall physical fitness and, crucially, their functional abilities too. Functional ability isn’t related to more arbitrary tests of fitness but rather is measured in the ease at which people can get up out of their chairs, dress themselves, or carry their own shopping. These are all things that, as one gets older, can become problematic, and so this research is illuminating. Furthermore, the researchers found that those who engaged in the HIT program significantly reduced their blood pressure in just the six-week training period, thus cutting their risk of heart disease.
And that’s not all: the exercise group reportedly enjoyed the activity, adding to their sense of wellbeing and health. Researcher Dr John Babraj is quoted as saying, “What we found with this study — which involves doing just one minute of exercise twice week — is that it not only improved the participants’ physical health and ability to do these things, but also their perceptions of their own ability to engage in physical activity. They enjoyed it, were delighted with the effects it had on their health and, on top of that, felt they could fit it into their lives, which is something they aren’t able to do with current exercise recommendations.”
He adds, “With the current increase in the number of retired people, it is important that we find new ways to keep them active that have a positive impact on their health and wellbeing. There is eight years of evidence which shows that HIT has a significant impact on obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and this study adds to that, showing that it is something that older people can benefit from too.”
The researchers stress that it’s not actually speed that’s the important factor here: it’s the amount of effort a person is putting in. They also highlight that anyone thinking of taking up a HIT workout regime should consult their doctor first because, while it is perfectly safe for most people, an underlying health condition could present certain risks.
All that said, if you don’t fancy a HIT program, science says that mostly any exercise is good for the body and can help fight the physical and mental decline associated with aging. What’s more, it’s rarely too late to start. If you’d like to read more about suitable exercises for the average over 65s, please click here.
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