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High-Intensity Interval Training: What Older Mice Can Teach Older People


High-intensity interval training involves repeated brief bursts of very intense exercise mixed with longer periods of easy recovery. Sounds like something for younger people, but a new study of mice suggests older people might benefit, too.

Jenny Adams oversees the Return To Work lab at Baylor Heart and Vascular Hospital. She works with people of all ages from their 20s to 80s in cardiac rehabilitation in her research about exercise.

Adams talks about what happened when older mice were subjected to periods of high-intensity interval training.

Interview Highlights

Results of the mice study: “The mice, even though they started out older, with high-intensity exercise, they had better mortality and morbidity outcomes. Skin looked better, their heart disease was better, their cholesterol was better. And the mice that just sat around didn’t live as long."

Appeal of high-intensity interval training: “For years and years, people have been told to do 'just go out and walk, just do moderate exercise for 30 to 60 minutes.' That’s a lot of time to try to do that five days a week. So, when they found out  that you could do less time – so maybe 20 minutes at high intensity – and get the same results – it saves you time and people are more like to do it.”

On greater activity for older people: "In the guidelines a lot of times, it says you should work out if you’re between 25 and 65 years old, but I don’t know why 65 is a cutoff. I think the people that are 65 and older should be lifting weights and doing exercise.”

Example of high-intensity exercise for older people: “Let’s say you have an 80-year-old person who comes to cardiac rehab, and they want to do interval training. You could do moderate walking for five minutes and then speed up the treadmill for 2.5 or three minutes for one minute, and that would be high intensity to them because moderate is walking at two miles an hour. High intensity is specific to the person. So if I had an older person who came to me and said 'I want to do high-intensity interval training,' I would start them out and work them up to it.”

Learn their capability and work from there? “They call that specificity of training. There's no age to specificity of training. If I have a person who comes in and their goal is to mow (the yard) and to lift their grandkid, then I would do a little of cardio on the treadmill and have them lifting kettle bells or weights to try to get them ready to lift their grandkid.”

Importance of weights in training: “We put emphasis on walking 60 minutes a day, but most people’s goals are to lift things and (use their bodies to the fullest). But every day that you sit and do nothing, you could lose the size of an orange of muscle mass a day. Your muscles give you energy. So, every bit of muscle that you lose, then people start saying they feel like they’re getting older and they don’t have any energy, and really, it’s because their muscles are going away. If you don’t have any muscles, then you can’t balance, then you lose your balance, then you fall, then you break a bone, so it’s like a cascade effect."

Other benefits of high-intensity training: "You’re getting your heart rate and blood pressure up for a minute or two, and then it comes back down. It's like training. Then, you can get the same physiological benefits, like lower blood pressure. Your glucose is better. Your heart rate is better; it doesn’t go so high during exercise because your muscles get trained to accept it. Then you have more energy, and then you have more balance, and then you can lift things, and you can do your life. But if you just sit down, the minute you sit down, it’s over.

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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.