I’m over 60, have congenital heart disease, had multiple open heart surgeries, & I’ve been doing 2-3 HIIT workouts per week for the last couple of years as my main source of cardio exercise.
It’s been great, and in this article I relay what the medical & sports science experts have to say about HIIT, & share several workout ideas appropriate for us older folk.
I love HIIT and the health benefits its provided me, but when I first heard the term high intensity interval training, it sounded intimidating.
Maybe it was too intense for me.
So before I began doing HIIT workouts, I decided to research as much of what the medical & sports science community had to say about HIIT.
Well long story short, there was/is an avalanche of evidence clearly showing how HIIT can positively impact our health.
So what benefits does HIIT offer?
*HIIT workouts can provide the same health benefits that moderate exercise like regular cardio provide, but require up to 80% less workout time.
*In addition, HIIT has been proven to continue burning calories for hours following the workout, and it also causes our bodies to produce human growth hormone, which increases muscle size and tone.
*HIIT greatly improves the cardiorespiratory system, boosting our aerobic capacity.
*It has also been shown to lower blood sugar, improve insulin resistance, lower cholesterol, and improve our heart’s pumping efficiency.
Important note: Before you get crackin’, make sure your doctor gives you the green light to exercise if you have any health issues.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science and medical resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
Benefits of HIIT for seniors
Here’s a list of reasons why high intensity interval training is good for us older adults. HIIT can:
- significantly reduce belly fat and fat in general
- increase muscle size & definition
- improve our heart’s pumping strength
- improve our cholesterol
- lower blood sugar
- improve insulin resistance
- boosts our metabolism
- boost our aerobic capacity
- lower blood pressure
- save us a lot of time
- help us lose weight if we need to
A great thing about HIIT is that there are so many ways you can do a HIIT workout, and you can do it just about anywhere you want.
I’ll go more into it a bit later, but for now just let me say that in a nutshell, all a HIIT workout requires of you are these two things:
- you exercising really hard for several seconds, followed by
- you resting or exercising very slowly for several seconds.
Rinse & repeat, that’s it.
How you do it, that’s up to you.
Other benefits include the fact that HIIT workouts don’t require a gym membership or any type of cardio exercise machine, if you don’t have access to either of those two things.
You can do HIIT in your living room or at a park, at the beach, in a hotel room if you’re traveling, wherever.
I work HIIT-style workouts into my schedule a couple of different ways.
Most of the time I do mine on my back patio, using an (apparently) indestructible hydraulic mini-stepper made by a Colorado-based company named Xiser:
My phone is my stopwatch, & I use a 1 lb. dumbbell in the other hand to balance things out.
The HIIT benefit of saving time
Plain and simple: HIIT workouts will take up a lot less time than the amount of regular cardio you’d need to do in order to get the same health & fitness benefits.
A number of sports science clinical studies have been done that measured how much time a HIIT workout needed in order to provide the same cardio benefit as say, an hour on a stationary bike 3 times a week, or 45 minutes briskly walking on a treadmill 4 times a week.
I looked at several studies like these below, and on average the amount of time saved was between 50-80%.
(That’s no typo.)
This 4-month study here tested the participants on stationary bikes.
The HIIT group that only did three 20-second high-intensity sprints 3x/week experienced the same cardiovascular & aerobic improvements as the group that spent 2 hours and 15 minutes (45 mins. x 3) per week riding their stationary bikes.
Counting the three 2-minute rest periods following the three sprints, the HIIT group’s workout was 7 ½ minutes long, compared to the regular cardio group’s workout of 45 minutes.
Lose weight with HIIT & a good diet
Bottom line: I’m living proof that HIIT plus a low-carb diet works as a weight loss plan: I lost 19 lb. in 3 months between April and July of 2019.
My situation before HIIT
I wasn’t fat — I’m 6’2” and was weighing 191 at the time.
But I had been forced to be sedentary & pretty much bed-ridden for the year prior to the latest* heart surgery I had at the end of 2018.
(* – It’s a birth defect in my heart’s hardware that has graced me with relentless challenges over these 60+ years, yee haw 😄.)
All that year my heart was in failure mode.
I couldn’t breathe enough air any time I walked anywhere — even from bed to bathroom — and obviously all exercise was nixed.
I was basically just sitting around waiting for the surgery day to arrive, popping blood thinner drugs so I wouldn’t stroke out.
So…post-surgery, I had extra useless weight around my belly and hips/back that I was itching to do away with.
Provided my heart was willing of course.
Started HIIT on a mini-stepper
5 months after surgery I bought the mini-stepper you saw up in that picture and started doing 4 minutes of HIIT a week.
(That’s right, only 4…that’s how little wind I had. Well, that plus my cardiologist’s orders to start back slowly.)
Those first HIIT workouts were 20 second sprints followed by 40 seconds of rest.
(In HIIT parlance, that’s described as a 1-minute set with a 2:1 recovery:work ratio).
I did 4 of those “20 seconds high, 40 seconds rest” sets per workout, 3 times a week.
That comes out to a weekly total of 4 minutes of HIIT + 8 minutes recovery/rest in between sets, which equals 12 minutes total time for the week.
Within a month of that my wind had greatly improved, and I was doing 12 “20 seconds high/40 seconds rest” sets, 3 times a week.
That totals 12 minutes of HIIT + 24 minutes of rest/recovery, which comes out to 36 minutes of total time per week.
And by the 3rd month I was up to 20-25 minutes of HIIT a week, with 40-50 minutes of rest, and my high-intensity sprint portions were up to 30 seconds long.
So at that level I was spending about an hour total per week for my whole cardio routine.
Added in a low-carb diet
I coupled that with a low-carb diet.
Not “Keto-diet” low, that’s too restrictive for me.
Plus I was lifting weights again, so I was one hungry hombre all the time: I ate a lot of food every day.
Just not a lot of high-calorie carbs.
Meaning, I ditched some of my faves so I could lose that useless weight.
That meant temporarily giving up large portions of bread, rice, & my beloved nighttime cereal.
I kept my daily carb count under or around 100 grams or so.
Stopped high-fat red meats, but I kept eating my good fats like almonds, avocados, olive oil, etc.
And I went from 191 lb. in mid-April to 172 lb. by mid-July just doing HIIT, a low-carb diet, and strength training.
Dangers of HIIT for over 60s like me
Here are three oft-asked questions regarding the safety of HIIT.
Can HIIT be dangerous?
When improperly done — meaning, to excessive amounts of total high intensity time per week — HIIT can cause symptoms very similar to overtraining.
But if done the right way (which is easy to do) by a person healthy enough to walk briskly for an extended time, there’s no danger at all.
I believe there are a few areas that someone wanting to do HIIT should make sure are in good order before starting a HIIT workout program.
The safety issues I address in the questions below answer all of these areas of concern.
Is HIIT safe for seniors?
For healthy older adults, the Mayo Clinic says HIIT is a great form of exercise.
A great thing about HIIT is that it’s not reserved exclusively for young athletes, despite its brief periods of high intensity.
Heck I have a heart with bad hardware and it’s doing wonders for me, and I started doing a little of it within just a few months following heart surgery.
This study tested interval training on people over 60. Researchers found that HIIT improved the participants’
- heart ejection fraction (i.e., pumping efficiency),
- aerobic fitness, and
- insulin resistance.
But like any form of exercise, if you’re in poor health you have to get your doctor to give you the green light.
Choose your type of HIIT exercise wisely
Another area of HIIT safety to be aware of has to do with the choice of exercise you use to do your HIIT workout with.
Looking around for HIIT workouts online you may come across young athletes doing their high intensity interval training with lots of jumping, sprinting, and other high-impact exercises.
It may be prudent for most seniors doing HIIT to choose low-impact exercises instead.
You can still get a great workout without having the risk of stressing your body to the point of injury.
Low-impact exercise is kind to an older body
I avoided those high-impact exercises for my HIIT because my 60 year-old joints told me to.
With low-impact HIIT I get an excellent workout that has greatly improved my cardio system, and my feet never leave the pedals.
I wrote an article on low-impact HIIT exercises that I posted here on heydayDo.
You can read it here if you’re interested.
Be safe, use good form
A final area regarding senior HIIT safety is with maintaining proper exercise form.
And by this I mean that the type of exercise you choose should be one where you can go all-out doing it and still maintain proper body position.
When the type of exercise becomes so difficult that good form falls by the wayside, that’s when trouble like repetitive motion injuries or losing balance and falling can occur.
Avoid all that by picking an exercise you already know how to do, or one that’s very easy to maintain control of.
Is HIIT safe for beginners?
Yes for sure.
HIIT doesn’t require that you know some special set of exercises or even have a high level of fitness.
You do need to be healthy, meaning free of any medical issues that your doctor wouldn’t give you a pass on.
It’ll make your heart rate go up, so your body needs to be able to handle that OK.
Similar to what I mentioned up in the senior HIIT safety section, if you’re just beginning HIIT may I gently suggest that you:
- get your physician’s approval if needed;
- pick a familiar exercise to start with;
- maintain good form throughout.
Don’t do HIIT too often
Avoid danger and don’t do HIIT on consecutive days, and don’t do HIIT more than 3 times per week.
HIIT workouts require that your short high-intensity portion be done at 80-90% of your heart rate’s maximum.
That basically means you’re going all-out for that brief 15-30 second interval.
The reason HIIT provides so many health benefits is that repeatedly doing this short high-intensity portion during a single workout causes stress that your body responds positively to while you’re away from it for a couple of days recuperating.
Bottom line: You need a couple of days between every HIIT workout for your body to recover & restore itself.
Limit your weekly high-intensity minutes
HIIT experts at Les Mills Research and the Penn St. University Department of Kinesiology have studied the relationship between HIIT and overtraining extensively.
Their recommendation to all of us is clear: keep your total weekly number of high-intensity minutes between 30-40 at the most.
Just to be clear, that’s not total workout time – they’re just referring to the weekly total of minutes you’re doing the high-intensity all-out work intervals.
Keep it under 40 minutes max.
As an anecdotal FYI, I’m doing 15-25 minutes’ worth of high-intensity work PER WEEK, depending on how I’m feeling.
And it’s providing me with noticeable benefits, cardiovascular-wise and definition-wise.
How to do HIIT
*You need to time your intervals with a stopwatch.
(I use the stopwatch in my iPhone and hold it in my hand while exercising.)
*You’ll do several sets each HIIT workout day.
(As an example, let’s say I’m doing 10 sets in my HIIT workout.)
*Sets consist of a high-intensity interval with a low-intensity rest/recovery interval.
(My current sets have a 30 second high intensity interval followed by a 60 second low intensity interval. Doing my 10 sets takes 15 minutes total time.)
*Your low-intensity rest/recovery interval should be much longer than your high intensity interval if you’re just starting HIIT.
(My high-intensity portion is 30 seconds long and my low-intensity portion is 60 seconds long, a 2:1 recovery:work ratio. Some HIIT workouts athletes do involve a 4:1 rest:work ratio, because their high-intensity portion is extremely intense.)
*Your low-intensity/recovery portion can be spent going slow with whatever exercise you’re doing, or you can stop completely, but keep moving around a little.
(When I first started doing HIIT I stopped and got off the stepper and just wandered around for a minute. Now I still wander a little but I’m back on the stepper going slow before the next high-intensity interval starts.)
*You need to put in a lot of effort to get your heart rate up to the magical 80-90% of maximum where benefits kick in.
*Your high-intensity work portions might be real short when you start. Maybe they’re only 10 seconds long to start, and that’s totally fine. For non-athletes, most sports science & medical authorities suggest only 15-30 second high-intensity intervals anyways.
*You should feel out of breath at the end of each high-intensity portion, then recover long enough to catch your breath and slow your heart down some, but not all the way.
*Remember the recommendations of the HIIT experts I mentioned earlier. Stay within the advised limits of maximum HIIT minutes per week and maximum HIIT workouts per week. A little goes a long way…
If you’re interested in more detailed information on the ideal HIIT workout length and the right amount of HIIT to do per week, I’ve written an article here on heydayDo that shares what sports science has to say about the duration & frequency of your HIIT workouts.
You can read it here.
7 easy-to-understand HIIT workouts
Here are several easy-to-do exercises that can be used for effective HIIT workouts.
Be creative and think of ways you can bump up the intensity in each one.
I’ll give you a couple of ideas to start you off, but go for it & experiment.
All of these exercises are low-impact, meaning at least one of your feet is on the ground (or machine) at all times.
This is to be kind to our older joints & bones, unlike the impact shock they’d endure from running, jumping, calisthenics & aerobics classes.
Low-intensity intervals: walking at a comfortable easy pace.
High-intensity intervals: You can boost your intensity to a high level several different ways.
You can simply walk as fast as you possibly can, raise your arms higher with each step, raise your knees higher, etc.
Play around with it, do what feels good and works.
Low intensity intervals: nice and slow lap or two.
High intensity intervals: all-out sprint 1 pool length.
(Above: Here’s the other way I fit some HIIT exercise into my schedule, with some in-the-pool work doing sprints in our Swim Spa.
I tether myself to one end, and do sprint paddling on one of my surfboards for 20-30 seconds as my high-intensity interval.
Then I rest up against one of the jacuzzi jets for a minute between sets…ahh. 😄 )
Stationary bike / Indoor cycle
Low-intensity intervals: easy pedaling with minimal resistance.
High-intensity intervals: depending on the bike, you can raise the intensity either by pedaling faster, raising the bike’s resistance level, or both.
(tip: Use the movable arms instead of resting on the stationary handlebars if you’re using an indoor model.)
Low-intensity intervals: Lightly hold handlebars, have the machine on minimal resistance.
High-intensity intervals: You can bump the resistance level up a number or two, work the push/pull motions of the handlebars with active arms, and make your legs more active by pushing harder & faster down through the pedals.
If you have access to a heavy bag at your community gym or have room at home to get an easy-to-use free-standing punching bag, a boxing HIIT workout is a fun way to sock your way into shape.
Wear gloves of course.
Low-intensity intervals: You may need to rest completely, just walking it off. The high-intensity portion can really wind you.
High-intensity intervals: You need to throw as many punches as you can during your work interval here.
You don’t have to bob around like a real boxer.
Keep it low impact and just shift your feet naturally.
You’ll start to feel it in your arms & shoulders as well as your breath.
Stepper / Mini-stepper
(tip: Maintain good form and be sure to keep an upright torso over the pedals. Don’t lean forward as the intensity increases. )
Low -intensity intervals: light shallow stepping at a comfortable pace.
High-intensity intervals: rapid deeper stepping, driving through your heels.
Very easy low-impact HIIT aerobics
In this section I’m sharing 3 real nice videos that each incorporate some of the aspects of HIIT I discussed earlier.
They just do it at a lower intensity than what I was cooking up.
So if the previous exercise options I listed above are a little too difficult for you (meaning, going full-tilt), these workouts will be better for you; they’re much easier.
Give them a try if you’d prefer to gently start out with an mellower introduction to HIIT workouts.
Oh, by the way – you’ll see dumbbells being used in portions of these videos, but they’re totally optional.
Fitness with Cindy
I like Cindy at Fitness With Cindy.
She’s got great energy and a great outlook on life.
Here’s a very easy twelve minute low-impact HIIT workout that she leads.
Senior Fitness with Meredith
Meredith’s another very good instructor and has created a nice workout that’s a little over 10 minutes long.
Body Rebooted with Christina Russell
Christina’s HIIT workout is around 15 minutes long, and her mom who’s close to 70 does the workout along with her…how cool is that!
Remember, dumbbells are optional if you don’t want to use them or don’t have them; Christina’s workout will still provide you with a great exercise session.
Here are answers to a few commonly asked questions regarding high intensity interval training.
How many times a week should you do HIIT? Can you do HIIT every day?
It is not recommended to attempt HIIT workouts on consecutive days, let alone every day.
That decision could be detrimental to your health, and the issue is insuring your body gets adequate recovery time between these intense workouts.
As far as how many days per week…
…The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that you consider starting with one HIIT workout per week.
Then after a couple of weeks, if all is going smoothly add a second HIIT workout.
ACE (the American Council on Exercise) says that HIIT workouts should be limited to 2-3 per week.
And joining the chorus of experts cautioning against overdoing it with HIIT, Mayo Clinic also recommends limiting your HIIT workouts to just 1-2 per week.
Remember, your HIIT workouts are supposed to be intense, using full effort to get your heart rate to 80-90% of its maximum.
Your body needs the recovery time.
Does HIIT burn fat?
High intensity interval training burns fat, and it can do it a much quicker rate than moderate exercise can.
Is HIIT better than cardio?
Technically HIIT is a form of cardio, and there are a number of real-world & clinically-proven advantages that HIIT has over regular cardio.
The one obvious advantage that HIIT clearly has over moderate, steady-state cardio is the fact that when HIIT is performed correctly, you can get all of the benefits that good old moderate cardio provides you in a fraction of the time.
HIIT has also repeatedly demonstrated that it can provide
“significantly greater improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness and other physiological parameters when compared to moderate-intensity, continuous training”,
according to the research cited by the American Council on Exercise.
Related articles here on heydayDo
I hope this article on HIIT for seniors and its supporting sports science research is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.