John Seivert: Can vigorous exercise be good for a senior?
I am asked this question regularly. While every patient is unique, their overall health plays a big part in answering that question. I just turned 60 a few months ago, and when telling some friends about a regional mountain bike race I was competing in last weekend, one friend commented that “Shouldn’t I start to take it easy on my heart and back off the bike racing now that I am 60?” I didn’t’ want to fire back with scores of research studies stating the opposite. The evidence continues to mount that performing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can improve fitness, help people lose weight, improve muscle mass, and add years to their lives. Let’s have a look at the research.
Research supporting HIIT in the general public
According to recent JAMA Internal Medicine research, including vigorous activity in your routine can add years to your life. Researchers looked at a cohort study that included more than 403,000 adults from the National Health Interview Survey, which ran from 1997 to 2013, and they selected data on self-reported physical activity. Now, I do have to be a bit critical here because a self-reported physical activity survey can have some bias towards inflating the intensity of exercise routines. They were not standardized, but I digress. However, those participants who had a higher proportion of physical activity to the total amount of exercise showed a lower risk of early death from all causes. They were more likely to live longer than those who didn’t have more intense exercise in their routines. The study recommends 150 minutes of vigorous activity a week as the sweet spot of efficacy.
What is Vigorous activity?
Vigorous activity is any activity that raises your heart rate to about 75% or more of your maximum heart rate. In the science world, it is greater than or equal to 6 METS. If 1 Metabolic Equivalent (MET) is the energy it takes to sit quietly, 6 METS is equivalent to any of the following vigorous activities. Running faster than five mph (12-minute mile pace), swimming intervals, shoveling continuously for several minutes, soccer, jump rope, carrying heavy loads (i.e., river rocks), and playing tennis (singles). These activities need to be done for several minutes and up to 30-60 minutes total. One should feel exhausted but rejuvenated after HIIT. For years, we have known that HIIT is key to improving athletic performance as it helps raise aerobic efficiency. As I mentioned in my column a couple of months ago, I do interval training on my stationary bike in my garage several days a week with weekends for long rides outdoors.
I have noticed that all my physiological data typically shows better sleep cycles when I do shorter and harder workouts. I have fitness equipment that measures continual data for my heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, sleep cycles, and activity levels. While riding, I have a heart rate monitor strap, and I also use a fitness tracker called the OURA ring to pick up physiological data 24/7. I test myself out on various workouts and assess how my body responds. I love data and have noticed my cardiovascular fitness has maintained relatively strong numbers over the past 15 years. For endurance athletes, the primary measurement of fitness is the VO2max. The VO2max is the maximum oxygen uptake a person can utilize during intense exercises. The value is measured in milliliters / kilogram / minute (55 ml/kg/min.). A world-class marathon runner may have a VO2max as high as 85-90 ml. My VO2max was maintained at 55 ml/kg from age 40 to 55. The research has confirmed what I have been doing. HIIT is the only way to maintain a high level of cardiovascular fitness after the age of 50.
Can you still be Fast after 50?
Ned Overend is an American former professional cross-country mountain bike racer. He is a six-time national champ and the first-ever cross-country world champion in 1990. He is now 65 years old and still competes in mountain bike races across the US and internationally. Up until a few years ago, he competed in the open division of most races. That is correct; he competed against all the 20- and 30-year-old professionals because he was still competitive into his late fifties. Ned didn’t start competing against athletes in his age group till after the age of 60. In an interview with Velonews news for the book “Fast after 50: How to race strong for the rest of your life,” Ned stated, “I turned 59 in 2014, and I have maintained a high level of fitness since I first began endurance racing in the late 1970s. Training with an emphasis on high-intensity intervals has been my preferred method of preparing for events throughout my career, which includes racing mountain bikes, road bikes, cyclocross, and XTERRA triathlon.” He goes on to say, “I embrace a high-intensity / lower volume regimen partly because I love to suffer but also because of the race results I’ve achieved with this philosophy”.
HIIT is suitable for people of all ages and all fitness levels. If you are new to exercising and begin an aerobic fitness program, consult your primary care physician before starting a program. Once you have clearance to begin training, consult a Physical Therapist or Personal Trainer to start training safely and effectively.
Enjoy the workouts, and remember, pushing yourself IS good for you, no matter how old you are. Chances are you will start to look better, feel better, and even sleep better after adopting these new training principles.
John Seivert is a doctor of physical therapy and he has been practicing for 34 years. He opened Body Logic Physical Therapy in Grass Valley in 2001. He has been educating physical therapists since 1986. Contact him at bodylogic2011@ yahoo.com.
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