5 Reasons Older Adults Should Try High-Intensity Exercise

HIIT offers multiple fitness advantages. Hero Images / Getty Images

You may have heard of an exercise approach called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT for short.  It involves brief bursts of intense activity, alternating with longer periods of slower exercise for recovery.  It's not just for younger, highly-fit athletes either; older adults can benefit from interval training, too.  Here's why you should try and boost the intensity of your daily activity, even if you are feeling a bit out of shape, and struggling with various health conditions.

1.  It builds fitness quickly: While much of the research on HIIT in older adults has been conducted on small numbers of subjects and for only short durations, there's growing evidence that inserting high-intensity intervals into an exercise session can yield rapid and measurable benefits for people over the age of 50.

For example, a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Applied Physiology assigned 8 adults aged 55-71 with Type II Diabetes to six shifts of interval training.  The sessions lasted 25 minutes each, and included 10 60-second intervals of hard cycling (heart rate target 90% of peak), interspersed with 60 seconds of either rest or slow pedalling.  A warm-up of 3 minutes and cool-down of 2 minutes rounded out each session. 

At the end of the 2-week study period - after only 6 shifts of interval cycling - the researchers found significant improvements in the subjects' glucose regulation (reducing hyperglycemia and improving blood sugar metabolism) and better skeletal muscle mitochondrial capacity (a marker for increased muscle strength).


All this - after an accrued time of just 30 minutes of all-out effort.  

Martin Gibala, Chair of the Kinesiology Department at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, led the study.  Gibala has been researching the benefits of high-intensity intervals for years, and believes that this approach to exercise can be motivating for the older adults who try it.

"When people start to exercise this way, we see a rapid boost in fitness," he explains. 

2.   It's Generally Safe:  It's true that most of the research on HIIT in older adults with health problems has been conducted in small-scale, short-term studies.  But a larger 2012 investigation published in Circulation - involving 4,846 Norwegian adults with coronary heart disease - concluded that high-intensity interval training was no more dangerous than moderate-intensity exercise.  Further, because of the "significant cardiovascular adaptations" associated with high-intensity exercise, wrote the researchers, this pattern of activity should be considered by patients struggling with heart problems.

The subjects in that report were all being treated at cardiac rehabilitation centres in Norway, with diagnoses ranging from myocardial infarction (heart attack) and heart failure to having undergone angioplasty. If you are undergoing assessment or treatment for cardiovascular disease, be sure to consult with your doctor or health-care provider before embarking on a new exercise program.


Martin Gibala notes that physicians should also explain the dangers of not exercising regularly - a growing problem of sedentary behaviour which threatens our health and longevity.

"Our study on diabetic patients showed that older adults can improve their fitness and blood sugar control measurably, and safely," he explains.  "Our subjects were on average, 62 or 63 years of age and benefited without any apparent ill effects from the interval training."

3.  It's Fast:  Research by Gibala and others has typically only prescribed very brief periods of high-intensity exercise, in total.  For example, his older subjects with diabetes completed just 30 minutes of all-out cycling over a two-week period (total time expended was 150 minutes during the study).  That's far below the traditional exercise guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.

"Whether it's simply an excuse, or a real impediment to fitness, the number one cited barrier to regular exercise is lack of time," he says.  "The evidence is growing that you can get similar fitness benefits with much less time invested.  If you want to maintain time-efficiency though, you have to boost the intensity." 

4.  You don't break a sweat:  Believe it or not, even a few brief intervals of cycling, walking or running at a higher intensity can be logged without donning workout gear.  Getting a quick uphill walk in on your lunch hour?  No sweat!  Literally: get the same heart and lung benefits as you would in a longer exercise session while still clad in your work clothes, and head back to the office feeling virtuous.

5.  You'll maintain a youthful shape:  While both men and women tend to experience an expanding waistline as they age - whether or not they gain any weight - research suggests that exercise can help you avoid dangerous belly fat as you get older. Less abdominal fat reduces your chances of a first heart attack, along with other age-related diseases like cancer and diabetes. Ensuring you are regularly active can also act as a hedge against midlife weight gain.

Advice for beginners:  Remember that high-intensity intervals are demanding, and subjects in HIIT studies are usually wearing heart monitors and have researchers standing by.  As Gibala points out, "there's no free lunch."

"This can be an uncomfortable way to train.  Obviously, if you have a health problem, you should discuss it with your physician  But if you're willing to put up with some transient total discomfort, you're able to get a fitness benefit in less time."

You can still reap the benefits of interval training by breaking up a run or walk with brief periods at higher intensity.  Just getting out of your comfort zone for several seconds, then slowing down, says Gibala, will have you headed in a more fit direction.


Jonathan P. Little, Jenna B. Gillen, Michael E. Percival, Adeel Safdar, Mark A. Tarnopolsky, Zubin Punthakee, Mary E. Jung and Martin J. Gibala. "Low-volume High-intensity Interval Training Reduces Hyperglycemia and Increases Muscle Mitochondrial Capacity in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes." J Appl Physiol 111:1554-1560, 2011.

Martin J Gibala. Professor and Chair of the Kinesiology Department, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Interview conducted by phone January 14, 2015.

Øivind Rognmo, PhD; Trine Moholdt, PhD; Hilde Bakken, BSc; Torstein Hole, MD, PhD; Per Mølstad, MD, PhD; Nils Erling Myhr, BSc; Jostein Grimsmo, MD, PhD; Ulrik Wisløff, PhD. "Cardiovascular Risk of High- Versus Moderate-Intensity Aerobic Exercise in Coronary Heart Disease Patients." Circulation. 2012 Sep 18;126(12):1436-40.

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