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HIIT is a great type of workout for most of your clients. When practiced once or twice a week it can boost calorie burn, improve cardiovascular fitness, increase muscle mass, and more. Plus, your clients can do it in less time than an endurance or moderate-intensity workout.
Don't let the intensity part of HIIT prevent you from getting your older clients to try this workout. Research indicates that the benefits of HIIT are for everyone. There are safety considerations, of course, and high-intensity will look different for a 70-year-old client as compared to someone who is 30, but they can and should do it.
HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. It is a workout that includes short bursts of intense activity that gets your heart rate close to its maximum followed by recovery periods. For example, on a cycling bike, you might do 30 seconds at all-out effort and pace, followed by a minute of slow, easy cycling, and then repeat the pattern several times.
There are a few reasons HIIT workouts have become so popular. One is practical. HIIT workouts are effective at just 10 to 30 minutes, so you can get in a full workout in less time than a traditional endurance workout.
Many people also love HIIT for its calorie burn. Compared to weight training and endurance cycling and running, HIIT burns 25% to 30% more calories (1). You can burn more calories in less time with HIIT. The reason for this is mostly explained by the afterburn effect. HIIT workouts increase your metabolic rate for hours after you finish the exercise.
Resistance training is also advantageous for seniors as part of a regular exercise program. Read this ISSA blog about the importance of strength training for seniors.
The benefits of HIIT are clear, and they extend to people of all ages. Seniors benefit from an intense workout just as younger people do. We know this not just from studies of younger people or athletes, but also from research focused on older adults.
A study of older adults and exercise followed participants in Norway for five years and found that seniors who participated in twice-weekly HIIT workouts had lower mortality rates from all causes.
This was compared to participants who did more moderate workouts or followed the national guidelines for exercise. Any physical activity benefitted older adults, but HIIT showed the most dramatic results (2).
One reason HIIT may reduce mortality is the effects on the heart. Studies show that HIIT workouts improve cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) in older adults. Aging is associated with a decline in CRF and physical activity can reverse this decline.
The researchers measured CRF with peak oxygen uptake. Both endurance training and HIIT workouts improved peak oxygen uptake in adults over 65, but HIIT provided greater gains (3).
A study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that regular HIIT workouts can reverse the deterioration in muscle cells that is typical in seniors. The study included participants over 65 and under 30.
Researchers found that HIIT changed the DNA in muscle cells, helping them produce more energy. The workout also increased the growth of new muscle tissue. The muscle-related benefits were greater in the older group of participants (4). Older adults are particularly vulnerable to muscle loss and any reverse or slowing of this process is good for health.
Muscle loss is a natural part of aging, but it doesn't mean you have to accept it. Workouts like HIIT slow or even reverse the loss of muscle tissue, and studies show that they may also increase the production of youthful hormones. HIIT workouts on bikes have shown that sedentary older men can get a significant boost in testosterone if they participate regularly for at least 12 weeks (5).
Fat around the middle section can be a problem at any age, but many older adults struggle with this area more than younger people. Studies of previously sedentary women show that HIIT workouts reduce belly fat more effectively than steady-state exercises. In fact, in one study, only the women in the HIIT group lost fat, and it mostly came from the midsection (5).
The best type of exercise is the one you'll do consistently. Any workout is better than none, but another benefit of HIIT is that it's a fun way to workout. Many seniors stick with low- or moderate-intensity activities, like walking or light weightlifting. These are fine, but they can get boring. Your older clients are more likely to exercise regularly if you change things up and make workouts more fun and interesting.
Make sure all your clients are adequately fueled before a HIIT workout. This post outlines what, when, and how to eat before HIIT.
Your older clients are more capable than you realize. Don't be afraid to try HIIT workouts with them, but do realize that they'll have different limitations and boundaries than younger clients. Injuries are a bigger risk for older adults, but you can make HIIT workouts both safe and effective:
Always encourage any older adults you know, or anyone with any limitations, to work with a trainer before trying a new kind of workout, especially a tough one like HIIT.
Create HIIT workouts based on your client's current fitness level and experience. Always do an evaluation with new clients before starting a training program.
Start with a basic training program first, for those clients with little or no fitness experience. Build up to easy HIIT workouts.
Put a lot of emphasis on the warm-up to avoid injuries. Include a solid cool down too.
Pick exercises that don't put your clients at risk of a fall. Balance may be more of an issue with your older clients.
Avoid overheating with a lower room temperature and airflow. Make sure your clients have water and sip on it during recovery periods.
Make HIIT workouts just one part of a senior client's routine. Two times per week is plenty, and for some people, just one HIIT session is safer.
Here's an idea for a starter HIIT workout for an average senior client. Adjust it up and down depending on ability level and fitness experience:
Warm-up with an easy walk for five minutes.
Walk faster for two minutes, at an intensity at which your client is breathing heavily but can still answer your questions.
Walk slowly for three minutes.
Repeat for between 15 and 30 minutes.
Cool down with a slow walk for five minutes.
You can increase the intensity of this workout by walking faster, adding an incline on a treadmill, and shortening the recovery periods. Change it up by using a stationary bike instead of a treadmill, going outside to use a track, or incorporating circuits.
Get your Lifespan Coach Certification through ISSA to learn how to work safely and effectively with older (and younger) clients. The online course will allow you to expand your client offerings and specialize in working with seniors. Get started today!
Falcone, P.H., Tai, C., Carson, L.R., Joy, J.M., Mosman, M.M., McCann, T.R., Crona, K.P., Kim, M.P., and Moon, J.R. (2015, March). Caloric Expenditure of Aerobic, Resistance, or Combined High-Intensity Interval Training Using a Hydraulic Resistance System in Healthy Men. J. Strength Cond. Res.29(3), 779-85. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25162652/
Tensvold, D., et al. (2020). Effect of Exercise Training for Five Years on All Cause Mortality in Older Adults—The Generation 100 Study: Randomised Controlled Trial. BMJ.37, m3485. Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m3485
Bouaziz, W., Malgoyre, A., Schmitt, E., Lang, P., Vogel, T., and Kanagaratnam, L. (2020, June). Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training and Continuous Endurance Training on Peak Oxygen Uptake Among Seniors Aged 65 or Older: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Int. J. Clin. Pract.74(6), e13490. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32083390/
Gaz, D.V. (2017, October 27). Why Interval Training May Be the Best Workout at Any Age. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/why-interval-training-may-be-the-best-workout-at-any-age/art-20342125
Furchgott, R. (2018, November 7). High-Intensity Interval Training: Why It Just May Be a ‘Miracle' Workout. AARP Bulletin. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2018/high-intensity-interval-training-workout.html
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