What Every Older Adult Should Know About HIIT

What Every Older Adult Should Know About HIIT

High-intensity interval training may be the best workout for older adults, but there are things to know before you begin.

By Jay Alberts, PhDUpdated May 23, 2024


I would like to tell you about a guy I will call Dan. I got to know Dan after his wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) and she became a patient at the Cleveland Clinic, where I run a research laboratory. We often recommend exercise for PD patients, and after Dan’s wife received her Parkinson’s diagnosis, he decided to hop on the fitness bandwagon as a way to support his wife. Dan got into cycling, and not in a “I pedal around the neighborhood a couple of mornings a week” kind of way. More like, “I signed up for a 3,500-mile ride across the U.S.”

Dan did a lot of his training for that ride on the Peloton Bike because he lives in Ohio, where the weather, particularly in the winter, is not always conducive to outdoor cycling. He was doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) three times a week, getting his average cadence to 95 revolutions per minute at 60 to 80 percent of his maximum heart rate. He got into such great shape over the winter that he is headed to Italy this summer to cycle the famous climbs in the Italian Alps and Dolomites.

Here’s the kicker: Dan is 67 years old.

Age Is Simply a Number

A lot of older adults—and even middle-aged adults—mistakenly believe they cannot complete strenuous exercise safely. I’m 50, and the guys whom I cycle with sometimes think that once they hit that big 5-0, they have to decrease their exercise intensity.

The thing is, training hard and maintaining a high level of fitness can not only be safe as you age, but it can also cushion you against some of the negative effects of aging. Earlier this year, scientists published a review of 69 studies on HIIT and older adults and found that high-intensity workouts are well-tolerated among this population. In fact, they discovered regular physical activity may provide health advantages, including reduced blood pressure and neurocognitive improvements.

An important study called “Generation 100” followed more than 1,500 adults in their 70s for five years to determine if exercise can improve longevity. The participants were split into three groups: One group performed two sessions of HIIT each week, another group performed two sessions of moderate-intensity training each week and a control group followed national physical activity guidelines. The results were published in 2020, and while they did not show that HIIT leads to a longer life, they did find that HIIT improves quality of life and cardiorespiratory fitness more than moderate exercise.

Another study in 2017 found that HIIT appears to trigger cellular changes that actually enhance your muscles’ ability to produce energy, giving your regular workouts an added boost. Further, the data suggest these changes were most pronounced in participants over the age of 65 compared to those under the age of 30—even though both groups performed the same workouts.

What HIIT Is And How to Do It Safely

When experts like me talk about high-intensity interval training, we are referring to a workout in which people alternate between vigorous, give-it-your-all activity and less intense periods of recovery. Each burst of high-intensity exercise is short—sometimes even less than a minute—but the key is to go hard, reaching 60 to 80 percent of your age-targeted maximum heart rate.

For example, on the Peloton Bike, you might ramp up the resistance, pedaling as hard as you can for 30 seconds to one minute, then lower the resistance for a minute or two of “flat road” riding before hitting your next intense interval.

While HIIT isn’t just for the young, there are important safety considerations for adults over age 65. You should have a cardiovascular screening before beginning any new workout routine and talk to your physician about any concerns they may have about high-intensity exercise.

Older people also need to be mindful of the risk of musculoskeletal injuries when doing any kind of exercise, not just HIIT. If you have a degenerative condition, like osteoarthritis, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about designing a HIIT routine that is safe and will not aggravate your condition or cause pain. Maybe running is out, but you can still dance or indoor cycle, for example.

How to Build HIIT into Your Fitness Routine

Generally, I recommend starting out with a 10 x 1 approach: One minute of relatively high-intensity activity, followed by one minute of lower-intensity activity, repeated for 10 sets. For those doing the math, that is only a 20-minute workout. An upside of HIIT is that you can get all the benefits of a long gym session in fewer minutes.

Before you add HIIT to your exercise plan, make sure your doctor is on board. Once you have the green light to proceed, start with one HIIT workout per week. If you feel good, you can gradually build up to three HIIT sessions per week. But cap it there. As you get older, your muscles recover more slowly from exercise, so you should not push your body to the limit, or failure, every day. However, recovery days should not be spent chilling on the couch. On your days off, aim to engage in active recovery workouts, like walking, yoga or core classes—activities that get your body moving and keep you flexible but are not exhausting.

Jay Alberts, PhD is a Cleveland Clinic scientist and paid consultant of the Peloton Health and Wellness Advisory Council. His research is aimed at understanding the structure-function relationships within the central nervous system and evaluating the impact of behavioral and surgical interventions to improve motor and non-motor function in Parkinson’s disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and other neurological populations. Dr. Alberts is currently leading two multi-site clinical trials investigating the role of exercise in slowing the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.