6 Reasons HIIT Is Better for Seniors than Walking

By Etta Hornsteiner
December 19th, 2018 Health & Wellness No Comments
dumbbells, sneakers

At Christmastime and when you don’t have time to exercise, try high intensity interval training (HIIT). When you need some pep in your step, try HIIT. When you need a boost of energy, try HIIT. When you need to lose weight and need to see results in two weeks, try a HIIT workout. Sounds too good to be true? But it is!  There is a lot of science to back up the benefits of high intensity interval training. HIIT has been one of the top fitness trends for over a decade. The growing evidence in support of its benefits has been pointing to the value of it for seniors in preserving their health and prolonging their longevity. Six reasons HIIT is better for seniors than walking is connected to its intensity factor, especially when time is an exercise barrier.

HIIT is high-impact, short-bursts training with intermittent rest periods. The workout usually lasts anywhere from 4 to 30 minutes and uses about 90% of the body’s maximum heart rate.


Range of Exercise Intensity

Graph of Examples of exercise intensity


HIIT Strengthens the heart and circulatory system

The heart is like an elastic band. When you’re younger, it is flexible and pliable. Then, as you become older, it becomes stiff and smaller as it struggles to process oxygen, especially if you are not exercising. HIIT has been shown to improve the heart condition of patients with cardiovascular diseases in terms of functional capacity and quality of life without increasing medical risk.

Dr. Ben Levine, a sports cardiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, along with his colleagues trained 61 clients for two years. The clients were in their 50s. At the end of the training, the clients showed improved maximal oxygen uptake and decreased cardiac stiffness.

According to an NPR report, a key part of the training was interval training using an old Norwegian ski team workout. Participants pushed as hard as they could for four minutes utilizing 95% of the maximum heart rate, followed by three minutes of rest. They repeated this exercise four times.

HIIT Reduces inflammation

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six in ten adults in the United States have a chronic disease and four in ten have two or more. Four chronic diseases—heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes—cause almost two-thirds of all deaths each year. Inflammation is believed to be the culprit behind chronic diseases.

This inflammation is caused by cytokines. Cytokines are chemical messengers produced by immune cells and other cells when the body is under attack. Cytokines are both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory. In other words, they are friend and foe. An abundance of the pro-inflammatory ones causes inflammation in the body, which eventually leads to chronic diseases. These pro-inflammatory cytokines are in fat cells. When fat cells are reduced, these cytokines are also decreased. When this happens, the body’s risk factor for chronic diseases declines.

HIIT appears to be an effective way to decrease risk factors for chronic disease, particularly in people with weight issues.

After just two weeks of interval training (three training sessions per week), cytokine levels within adipose or fat cells were reduced in a group of inactive overweight/obese men.

HIIT Stimulates muscle growth that produces anti-inflammatory cytokines

Building or maintaining muscle becomes extremely important as you age, because as you age, you lose muscle. This is called sarcopenia. High intensity training not only can help you grow and preserve muscles but also fight chronic inflammation. As muscles contract, they release myokines—cytokines and other proteins. These myokines produce anti-inflammatory cytokines which help control the body’s immune response and the pro-inflammatory cytokines.

High intensity interval training exercises combined with aerobic and strength/resistance exercise training potentially provide the greatest benefit when it comes to reducing systemic inflammation.

HIIT Can bolster brain power

HIIT has been shown to be most effective at increasing a growth hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, fertilizer for those newborn cells in the hippocampus. Hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for memory.

In a study involving 22 healthy middle-aged individuals, HIIT was shown to enhance their cognitive functions. Participants were assessed before and after performing an HIIT workout. There was no improvement after low-intensity active stretching.

HIIT Can cause change at the cellular level

Each cell in your body carries mitochondria which makes energy for the body. Mitochondria acts like a bundle of fully charged batteries. The mitochondria produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a fuel for the body to carry out every function. As you grow older, the body becomes inefficient in replacing mitochondria as they die off, resulting in fatigue and lack of luster. HIIT stimulates the growth of these mitochondria as muscles break down and are repaired, growing back stronger and improving age-related decline in muscle mitochondria.

HIIT Improves Respiratory muscles

As you age, respiratory muscles such as the diaphragm can also become stiff and hard. Just like the heart, they can lose their elasticity, making it difficult to breathe and thus affecting the body’s posture. Because HIIT involves exercising to the point of breathlessness, you have to breathe deeply to recover. This deep breathing facilitates fat loss.

A study in the British Medical Journal revealed that “the lungs are the primary excretory organ for fat. Losing weight requires unlocking the carbon stored in fat cells.”

So, as you perform your HIIT exercises, breathe deeply because you’re excreting fat!


  • Always get your physician’s approval first when starting any exercise program.
  • Because HIIT involves exercising to the point of breathlessness, moderate your heart performance with a heart monitor. Discover the best heart rate monitors for seniors here.
  • If it is your first time trying an HIIT workout, start at a slower pace.
  • Try HIIT sprinting, cycling or swimming.

Sample HIIT Exercise

Try this 10-minute HIIT treadmill exercise.

For post workout, you can also finish off your resistance training with an HIIT workout such as the 10-minute HIIT treadmill exercise.

Cooling Down

High intensity interval training is easy to incorporate in any exercise program at home or at the gym. Though high intensity interval training can be as simple as you desire, it is always challenging because you are exercising to the point of breathlessness. If in doubt about your fitness capacity, always check with your doctor or hire a certified personal trainer. HIIT improves the body’s cardiovascular and respiratory system. It boosts brain power, reduces fat and thus inflammation, and reverses the signs of aging within the cells. These six benefits of high intensity interval training affect senior’s health and longevity, making it an ideal exercise for this age group.


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