It is never too late

Even a small gain in physiological function may translate into functional improvement and a greater independence for older people.

“Maximum oxygen uptake is perhaps the most important measure of physical health today,” says Professor of Medicine Jan Helgerud. He has worked with training and health for most of his life. The professor says there is much research on the benefit of high-intensity training for younger people, including how it can prevent lifestyle diseases and premature death. However, there are few studies on the health benefits of the same effective training for older people.

“Most studies on the elderly are based on moderate and low intensity endurance training. Therefore, we wanted to study the effect of interval training on the elderly. We wanted to find out whether they get the same effect as younger people and whether it is actually possible for them to carry out the exercises.”

Professor of Medicine Jan Helgerud

The study

Based on these questions, a study was initiated where Helgerud and his colleagues observed 21 healthy, but untrained men and women, aged 69 and above. The group was divided into two, one group trained three times a week for ten weeks, while the second, the control group, were asked not to change their exercise habits.

“The training was conducted as four times four minutes walking or running uphill, three times a week for ten weeks. To ensure the proper intensity, participants were provided with heart rate monitors, which has not been common practise in previous studies, Helgerud explains.

According to previous research, this type of exercise can increase the maximum oxygen uptake so much so that it equals a ten-year drop in biological age in just ten weeks. So, what is it that affects the oxygen uptake?

“You could write a whole book on this question, but the short version is this:

The increase in oxygen uptake is primarily due to increased pumping capacity of the heart in the form of an increase in stroke volume, or how much the heart pumps per stroke. This is due both to increased heart volume and the increased contractile force of the heart,” the professor explains.

“Maximum oxygen uptake increases the most at high intensity intervals,” he adds.

What was the result for the “old” participants, then?

“During the ten weeks, participants improved their oxygen uptake by 4 ml/kg x min, which corresponds to almost ten years in reduced biological age,” Helgerud says.


How to train efficiently

Words like «high intensity» may seem a little daunting, but it is not as bad as it sounds. 4X4-intervals are all about listening to your body, working out at an intensity that is comfortable and that does not produce too much lactic acid, whether you walk, jog or run.

“You have to endure a little bit of sweating, though,” the professor says.

The entire session should start with a six-minute warm up at moderate intensity, followed by the intervals. Each interval consists of four minutes followed by a three-minute active break. For best effect, you should be at 85 to 95 percent of maximum heart rate during intervals. This corresponds to heavy breathing, but without any discomfort or stiffness in the legs. During breaks, you should be at 70 percent of maximum heart rate.

“When you have worked hard for four minutes, you should be able to continue for another minute. When you have completed all the intervals, you should be able to complete one more four-minute interval,” Helgerud says.

If you manage to keep a conversation going throughout the interval, the intensity is too low.

Elderly should train twice a week

Exercise is perishable. Three weeks of bed rest is equivalent to 30 years of ageing.

According to Helgerud, it has previously been shown that exercise capacity drops with age, but that it falls just as much, or more, a result of inactivity. Therefore, it is essential for people above a certain age to maintain a minimum level of activity in order to prevent lifestyle diseases.

Effective training twice a week for ten weeks may improve your physical work capacity by ten percent, lower your biological age by ten years, and reduce the risk of lifestyle disease or early death with 12 to 20 percent.

This minimum equals 62 minutes of effective training each week, including warm up and cool down. This is, in other words, something every active pensioner has time for. By combining this workout with a hike on the weekends, you can remain 20 years old biologically, until you are 80.

So, what are you waiting for? It is never too late!


Effects of High-Intensity Endurance Training on Maximal Oxygen Consumption in Healthy Elderly People

Dallas Bed Rest and Training Study 2001