Should Seniors Do
High Intensity Interval Training?

A basic definition of interval training is the repetition of exercise sets separated by 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 doctor 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. Since Tabata workouts are short, to be effective they are highly intense. Kettlebells, bodyweight calisthenics, running, or just about any 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. Older seniors may find this approach more age appropriate.

So interval training can be as structured and highly intense as Tabata or less structured as in brisk 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. And you recover while moving to the next exercise. Shortening the recovery time between changing exercises increases the intensity.

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. Personal preference is certainly an option when selecting an exercise format.

So interval training, generally, is fine for seniors. But a senior’s age must be taken into account. Which brings us to high intensity interval training and the Tabata question.

For young seniors, let’s say men and women in their early 50s, even the very high intensity Tabata method may be appropriate; assuming, of course, they have no underlying health issues and a pretty good degree of fitness to start with. However, I would certainly discourage it for out-of-shape and/or very overweight senior beginners. Out-of-shape senior beginners should first follow an age-appropriate beginners' program.

Personal Note: I led cardio-kickboxing classes into my late 60s. They were tough workouts, the stringing together of intervals of varying and often high intensity. The sessions went 30-minutes before there was a water break. Those workouts would be too much for me today. As Clint Eastwood's movie character, Dirty Harry, said, "A man's got to know his limitations." Being a senior brings with it certain limitations. It's silly and can even be dangerous to ignore them.

My advice is this: Once you have developed a good degree of fitness, remain consistent with your training. Some form of interval training may serve you well. Don't baby yourself but also be reasonable and realistic. That means as you get up in years, speak with your doctor before taking on high intensity interval training.

If you should decide to include something as intense as Tabata, don't start out with a 100% effort. Make modest efforts at first to get the feel of it, before going full tilt.

For a free online Tabata timer, go here.

Retrun from High Intensity Interval Training to the Senior Exercise Central home page.

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