For decades, competitive athletes have used high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to improve their performance. Now this exercise approach—alternating brief periods of intense exercise with short recovery breaks—has caught on with people of all ages and fitness levels.
“You are pushing yourself to a point where, for 30 seconds to a couple of minutes, you are giving everything you can give,” says Brad Prigge, a wellness exercise specialist at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program in Rochester, Minn. “Then you let yourself recover, catch your breath, and you do it again.”
The growth of HIIT-centric chains like Orangetheory, Barry’s Bootcamp, and SoulCycle is making HIIT easier to do. And recent findings on how beneficial it is may be the impetus you need to get going.
The health benefits associated with this training method are well documented, especially for older adults. Last year, Mayo Clinic researchers reported that while HIIT can help anyone, older adults reaped the biggest rewards. HIIT, the study of men and women 30 or younger or over 64 found, reverses some age-related deterioration of muscle cells, improves energy production in muscles, and triggers new muscle growth.
Naturally, HIIT may not be a good idea if you have health conditions that rule out the “high intensity” part. If you have any doubts, talk to your doctor. “For most people it’s not something to be afraid of,” Prigge says. “Like anything, start gradually and gradually build from there.”
Here’s a plan for jumping in.
Follow your heart
Any workout that gets your heart pumping for short, intense periods qualifies as HIIT. You don’t need a heart rate monitor to do it, but it is a good way to gauge your effort.
Trainers will often talk about heart rate zones, which are a percentage of your maximum heart rate. As a starting point to determine yours, subtract your age from 220. So, for example, at age 55 you should aim to get your heart rate to around 132 beats a minute (80% of your 165 max heart rate) during each interval, which can last from 30 seconds to a few minutes.
Keep in mind, however, that maximums differ significantly from individual to individual regardless of fitness, and a higher max heart rate doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more fit.
Rather, think of your heart rate as your internal speedometer, and let perceived exertion be your guide. After you’ve done several workouts using a heart rate monitor, says Prigge, you will start to get a feel for what is right.
If you are training at what is supposed to be your max heart rate and not breaking a sweat, adjust the goal higher. Just as important, if your heart rate seems low but your perceived effort is high, let that be your guide and aim for a lower rate.
Giving HIIT a whirl
You don’t necessarily need to do these workouts in a group setting or even at a gym. On your own, you can pick your activity (walking, biking, or whatever you like to do) and begin with a 10-minute warm up, then alternate between a fast and moderate pace for 20 minutes, and end with a cool down.
You can vary the total duration based on your schedule and fitness. Likewise, you can vary the length of the intensity and recovery periods. If you want to ramp up the intensity portion, do repeated runs on a hill, increase the incline on a treadmill, or up the resistance and tempo on a stationary bike.
“Experiment with different things you enjoy so you’re more likely to sustain it,” suggests Prigge.
A long-time triathlete and competitive cyclist, Mike Leone, 54, was already in good shape when his wife, Christine, suggested they try a trainer-led, high-intensity workout that combines cardio and strength exercises at Orangetheory.
Five years later, the Southern Californian couple does the class twice a week. They find the small group setting, with an instructor and a set workout to keep you moving, motivating.
“One of the appealing aspects is people of different abilities can work out together,” says Leone, who credits the high-intensity routine with shedding fat and getting fitter. “It’s engaging because it’s different every time.”
All things in moderation
You don’t need to do HIIT every day to get the full benefits. In fact, just the opposite is true. To get the most benefit from intensity training, two to three times a week is plenty, says Prigge. Balance those workouts with different activities the other days—and don’t overlook the importance of rest.
“A big component of doing this kind of training, we found, is getting enough recovery,” says Leone, who typically goes to Orangetheory Monday and Thursday, takes Tuesday and Friday off, and goes for long bike rides on the weekends.
The combination of high-intensity and other activities, he says, offers “the two most important things as this stage of our lives—consistency and variety.”