February 15, 2012

Cardio: Should Seniors Do
High Intensity Interval Training?

A basic definition of interval training is the repetition of exercise sets with short active recoveries. One classic example is running sprints followed by slow jogging or walking, the active recovery stage; then repeating the sequence a number of times. At the extreme end of high intensity interval training is Tabata, named after the Japanese physician who developed the system to condition athletes.

The Tabata protocol requires repetitive sets of 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of recovery. As you would expect, Tabata workouts are short but highly intense. Kettlebells, bodyweight calisthenics, running, or just about kind of exercise or exercise device can be used for Tabata sets.

A gentler and less measured form of interval work is brisk walking over hills. Your cardiovascular system is challenged going uphill, and recovery occurs while going downhill. I am in my 70s, and this approach seems more appropriate for me at my stage in life. As a bonus, I get to enjoy the outdoors and open space three or four times each week.

So interval training can be as structured and highly intense as Tabata or the more age appropriate hill walking. And there are many varying degrees of intensity intervals between the two methods.

It is also possible, and many find it preferable, to combine resistance training with cardiovascular exercise in an interval circuit format. Moving directly from one resistance exercise or set to the next raises your heart rate during the resistance phase; you recover while moving to the next exercise. The intensity can be increased by shortening the recovery times.

Remember, too, that when your pulse rate rises, and then falls, as you move from exercise to exercise, your heart and lungs do not know if you are sprinting, followed by walking, or if you are, say, swinging a kettlebell, followed by slow walking in place.

So personal preference is certainly an option when selecting an exercise format. I usually like keeping my resistance work separate from cardio. Right now, I like mixing kettlebells and resistance bands for my strength training. Since my resistance workouts right now are purposely not cardiovascular in nature, I take the necessary recovery time between sets that allows me to use more weight or resistance than would be possible if I were doing intense intervals.

Interval training, generally, is fine for seniors. But a senior’s age must be taken into account. Which brings me to the Tabata question. A couple of seniors have asked about their trying it.

For young seniors, let’s say men and women in their early 50s, the very high intensity Tabata method may be appropriate, assuming, of course, they have no underlying health issues and a good degree of fitness to start with. However, I would discourage it for out of shape and overweight senior beginners.

What about older seniors? As we age, most of us should scale down high intensity intervals. I led cardio-kickboxing classes almost to my 69th birthday. They were tough workouts, the stringing together of intervals of varying and often high intensity. But those workouts would be too much for me today, at age 75. Much too much.

As to the Tabata question, my advice is this: Do not baby your self, and be consistent in your training; but, above all, be reasonable and realistic. That means getting a doctor’s clearance before taking on any very high intensity interval training, such as Tabata. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry said, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” He was right. It can be dangerous not to know them.

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Gray Iron: A Fitness Guide for Senior Men and Women

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Logan Franklin
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