Margaret Jennings looks at a training method making headlines following positive research results and hears some important dos and don’ts from a fitness expert.
HIGH-intensity interval training (HIIT) made the headlines recently when a new US study found that older participants, aged 65-80, who exercised in this way over three months, reversed the ageing decline in their cells and boosted their lung, heart and circulation health.
The take-home message from the Mayo Clinic research was that HIIT is ideal for ageing adults as it benefits our body at the molecular level as well as metabolically.
But what exactly is HIIT and how do we go about it? You may have done it yourself, for instance on a minor scale, if you charged up and down the stairs at home, because HIIT involves short bursts of very intense activity, followed by recovery periods of low- intensity exercise.
But of course to get the full benefits of any proper exercise programme involves having application and discipline.
“High-intensity interval training, is a training technique in which you give all-out, 100% effort through quick, intense bursts of exercise, followed by short, sometimes active, recovery periods,” says Fidelma Conlon, director at Ireland’s National Training Centre (NTC).
“This type of training raises and keeps your heart rate up and requires more energy. After you have warmed up, it is about working as hard as you can for short periods of time, resting, and then working again and repeating this cycle from 10mins to 30 minutes.”
But before you rush out to the garden to do some frantic laps, in the hope of turning back the clock, let’s take a deep breath first.
“While high-intensity training has been shown to provide great benefits in reducing the effects of ageing, it will not suit everyone for a variety of reasons, involving a person’s current health and fitness,” Fidelma cautions.
“We at the NTC recommend that everyone over 50 should have an annual health check with their GP. Some people for instance have a fear that high-intensity training may evoke a heart attack or stroke.
"Exercise itself does not cause the arterial or cardiac damage that may pre-dispose a person to the risk of a heart attack, but even the fittest people in the world can suffer heart issues and that is why we recommend an annual check-up.”
Aside from that, she also points out the importance of a properly trained instructor who sees to your individual needs and does not have a “one fits all” approach to your workout.
“As one gets older, warming up is more important than ever, especially if it’s a high-intensity class or workout, to ensure the physiological changes are gradual, to allow the body to cope with the intensity to follow in a safe manner. And then cooling down is also equally important to help the body return to its normal restating state.”
This all helps reduce the risk of injury and ensure the overall training is safe, effective and appropriate, which should be the norm for any form of exercise.
But once we are confident on our own, in our routine, how do we know if our exercise is intense enough?
Fidelma suggests doing The Talk Test: “If you’re working at a high intensity level where you are exerting yourself to your maximum effort you should be breathless and only able to say a few words at a time.”
Another guide is to measure your heart rate: “For this method, you can calculate your target heart rate zone and use a heart rate monitor to track your heart rate. To work at a high intensity, you would stay between 75-90% of your maximum heart rate.
"Many people enjoy the idea of wearing a heart rate monitor where you can actually set your training heart rate zones which will determine whether you are working hard enough or not.”
Here are some examples of HIIT you can do yourself:
Walk / Jog / Run (1 : 1)
As a beginner start with walking at a medium pace for 1 minute and jog /run for 1 minute — repeat the same cycle for 10 minutes and work up to 20 mins.
If you’ve a good level of fitness and are used to jogging, you can jog at a moderate pace for 1 minute and sprint for 1 minute.
When sprinting, exert yourself to your maximum and then recover for 1 minute.
Repeat the sequence for 10 minutes and work up to 20 minutes.
Stair Climbing (1 : 1)
Run up and down the stairs for 20 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds. Repeat this cycle for 10 minutes.
This 10-minute workout could be performed 2 - 3 times over the day (10 mins morning, 10 mins lunchtime, 10 mins evening).
It offers even greater benefits than going on a steady walk or jog for 30 minutes.
* If you plan to work with an instructor and want to check out if they are qualified you can email the NTC office at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is also a register of exercise professionals in Ireland at www.repsireland.ie but as it’s not compulsory to join at the moment — there is no regulation in the health fitness industry here — not all qualified instructors may be on it.
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