How Super Troupers can hold back the decades

The best way to keep up with the fast tracks on Abba's latest album is to introduce high-intensity training sessions into your fitness regimen. It could even help to cut your biological age by up to 20 years, says a researcher
How Super Troupers can hold back the decades

Picture: iStock 

It is over four decades since Abba released their hit single ‘Super Trouper’ and yet the fab four are still going strong. On November 5, the Swedish super-group will launch its new 10-track studio album, Voyage.

Last month they delighted fans by releasing two songs from the album - ‘I Still Have Faith In You’ and ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ - their first singles since 1982.

Also, tickets have gone on sale for a “revolutionary” set of concerts where virtual avatars of the group’s members will play hits like Mamma Mia and Waterloo.

If all of this has got you in the mood for dancing, then you will need to shape up to keep up with Agnetha, 71, Anni-Frid, 75, Bjorn, 76, and 74-year-old Benny, none of whom show any signs of slowing down.

According to the Central Statistics Office, more than 637,000 people in Ireland are now aged 65-plus. Our ageing population means that many more will occupy that age bracket in decades to come.

Science suggests all of us can become super troupers as we age, provided we adopt the right physical activity patterns.

The latest research suggests that needn’t involve endless hours at the gym. Associate professor Peter Herbert, a sprightly 76. from the Centre for Health and Ageing at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, says exercise can not only slow the rate of biological ageing but also reverse it. In a recent paper published in the journal Experimental Gerentology, he revealed that a man in his late-60s can cut his biological age by up to 20 years through exercise alone.

Herbert says that, on average, our maximum attainable heart rate declines by about one beat per minute, per year, after about age 30 and that about 90g of muscle is lost each year from the age of 40 meaning that a man in his 70s who does no exercise typically has a third less muscle than a 25-year-old. Women lose muscle mass too, but at a slightly reduced rate. Added to that, your aerobic capacity – the maximal amount of oxygen your body can consume during hard exercise - decelerates with age.

“There is typically a 16% decrease in aerobic capacity by your 50s but a dramatic 26% drop from your 70s onwards,” Herbert says.

“Since lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are strongly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality, any way in which we can slow this decline would help to offset some of the effects of ageing.”

Herbert believes he has a fitness formula to stave off some of these unwanted effects.

Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, of the Swedish band Abba, who have announced their first album in nearly 40 years and unveiled a "revolutionary" digital concert show.
Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, of the Swedish band Abba, who have announced their first album in nearly 40 years and unveiled a "revolutionary" digital concert show.

For his first paper, published in 2015, he recruited 19 masters athletes, aged 55-74, lifelong super-exercisers who were competitive in cycling, rowing, squash and triathlon events.

He persuaded them to reduce their regular training load from a minimum three hard weekly sessions to a single high-intensity workout, which he called Fit HIIT. It involved six 30-second sprints performed at 90% of their maximum effort on an indoor bike, with each burst followed by three minutes of recovery, every five days.

In between, they did a gentle aerobic activity such as walking jogging for no more than half an hour a day.

Another group of 25 participants who had been sedentary for up to 30 years were asked to follow a six-week preliminary conditioning programme of light to moderate activity to bring them up to the recommended guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate activity a day or 150 minutes per week. After that, they moved on to the same Fit HIIT approach performed at their own level of effort once every five days for the next six weeks.

Those results, reported in Age, the journal of the American Aging Association, revealed significant improvements in leg power, aerobic capacity and body fat across the board. Even those who were super-fit to start with benefited from the abbreviated high-intensity workouts with enhancements to their age-related physiological profile.

But Herbert wanted to know if the effects were longer lasting and if the tide of time could be further held back. So for his latest paper, he reassessed the same men to find out how they fared four years down the line, aged 59-78, having been left to their own devices in the interim.

This time results clearly indicated that brief high-intensity exercise can help to reverse the effects of ageing, at least in terms of cardiovascular health. There was no age-related decline among the lifetime super-exercisers, who had impressively higher aerobic fitness at the start of the trial and who had continued doing the Fit HIIT on average once every five to ten days, on top of other moderate exercise, even after the original study had finished.

“Our findings showed that, at an average age of 68, they had the cardiovascular function of someone 20 years younger,” Herbert says.

Benefits were evident across the board with perhaps the most impressive outcome among the men who were sedentary before they took part in the trial and who returned to more or less the same levels of inactivity after it.

Herbert’s overriding message is that a fitness regimen needn’t be hardcore to bring about significant results in your 50s onwards. “For the average person who doesn’t do much else in terms of activity, they need only do the hard HIIT session once every three weeks and stay active the rest of the time with plenty of running, cycling and walking,” he says.

“Our research has shown that the effects of it are considerable and that, accompanied by plenty of moderate activity the rest of the time, it will keep you aerobically younger as long as the fast, hard bursts are in your programme somewhere.”

The Super Trouper Workout

Pre-conditioning programme

This is essential if you have spent successive lockdowns doing very little exercise.

Weeks 1-4: Build up to 20 minutes a day of walking at a fairly brisk pace

Week 5-6: On alternate days do: Day 1 (am) — 3 minutes of steady walking or cycling, 4 minutes of faster walking, 3 minutes of steady walking; (pm) — 10 minutes of steady activity. Day 2 — 20 minutes of steady walking


1. Perform either 6 x 30-second sprints on a bike (with 3 minutes of very gentle cycling recovery between each burst) or 6 x 20-second sprints of uphill running or on a rowing machine (3 minutes of gentle recovery).

2. If you wear a heart rate monitor, you should push to 90% of your maximum heart rate. If not, work hard enough that you are puffing and unable to speak during the “efforts”. 

“It’s not supposed to feel easy and it won’t be particularly enjoyable,” Herbert says. “But you will reap the long term benefits.”

3. For the first six weeks, do this every five days in order to allow full recovery between each interval session. After that, even if you are very fit, don’t repeat the Fit HIIT session more often than every five days. For non-athletes in their 40 or 50s, every 10-15 days is sufficient. For those aged 60-plus, once every three weeks is enough.

4. On other days stay moderately active. “Move as much as you can,” says Herbert. “Run, swim cycle, surf, do yoga or whatever you enjoy doing with moderate intensity.”

Strength gains

Do these three exercises with weights that allow you to perform 10 repetitions of an exercise before needing a break for a total of 20 minutes per week:

Lateral pull-down: Sit in front of the pull-down machine at the gym with feet flat on the floor. Push chest up and out and extend arms to grab the handles of the machine, taking a wide grip. Inhale, keep shoulders down and pull down the bar in front of you using your elbows until you feel your shoulder blades are together and you can squeeze the lateral muscles in your back. Slowly raise the bar back up and repeat.

Bench chest press: You can perform this either with a barbell or on a machine. To do it with free weights, lie flat on your back on a bench and grip the bar with hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Bring the bar slowly down to your chest as you breathe in. As you breathe out, grip the bar hard and push up, aiming for a steady controlled movement. Repeat.

Leg press: Place feet shoulder-width apart on the platform. Engage your core muscles and exhale as you drive away with your feet. Be sure to push with both feet simultaneously from the toes to the heels and don’t completely lock the knees at full extension. Inhale and slowly return to your original position, bringing your knees back down toward your bottom at a 90-degree angle. Repeat.

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