Doc Eifrig: Why even seniors should exercise like athletes

From Dr. David Eifrig, MD, MBA, editor, Retirement Millionaire:

Be honest… Have you quit on yourself?

The No. 1 resolution Americans make each year is to lose weight. So, there’s a good chance you’re one of them… and it’s a nearly 50-50 shot you’ve given up already. According to a survey from the University of Scranton, after one month, 46% of people have quit working on their resolutions.

That’s why I said last month in my “Top 12 Ways to Improve Your Health in 2015” that I’m not a big believer in resolutions. They just don’t work.

And it’s not easy to improve your health by getting in shape. Perhaps the most common reason people have for not exercising is they don’t have time. To be fair, it’s not an excuse… exercising can be a big time commitment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week (plus two days a week of strength exercises).

That’s 30 minutes a day, five days a week, of exercise… plus the time you’d also need for the strengthening activities. And that doesn’t count the time it takes to get ready for a workout (like getting dressed, showering, and driving to and from the gym).

And that’s the minimum to get health benefits. If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s even longer. That’s 10-15 hours a month, minimum.

Think about it another way… Losing one pound is equivalent to burning 3,500 calories.

Walking for 30 minutes at a three-miles-per-hour pace (the average speed a person walks) burns just 112 calories for a 150-pound person. That’s only four calories per minute. At that light pace, you’d need to walk for nearly 16 hours to burn one pound.

But… I’ve recently learned one of the most amazing bits of practical health science I’ve ever heard. Today, I’m going to share a method of exercise that gives us one of our best chances for success… and eliminate the problem of finding time.

What I’m going to show you takes a few minutes a week… and is scientifically proven to be more effective than conventional strategies.

In fact, some of the world’s greatest athletes use this training method, like elite cyclist Chris Froome and gold-record-setting Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

I’m talking about high intensity interval training (HIIT).

Just like the name sounds, HIIT is a workout strategy where you mix short, intense bursts of effort with longer recovery periods. It’s intense, but it’s considered safe for anyone, even older folks and people just getting started with regular exercise.

Studies show HIIT is more efficient than regular aerobic exercise. It improves your body’s fat and calorie burning. A 12- to 15-minute HIIT workout is equivalent to an hour of steady aerobic exercise.

As I said, this is some of the most exciting research I’ve seen in 30 years.

While interval training has a long history, the recent resurgence began with a 2011 study from McMaster University in Ontario that reported short periods of high intensity interval training gave people the same benefits as longer periods of moderate exercise.

Bottom line, you can cut your exercise time with HIIT from hours to minutes a week.

The most studied HIIT regimen is something called the Wingate. In this protocol, the participant exercises at an “all out” level of exertion for 30 seconds, then rests for about four minutes. This is repeated four to six times, so that the total exertion time is only two to three minutes. The workout is performed three times a week.

That’s only nine minutes per week of intense exertion compared with 150 minutes of aerobics or 16 hours of walking.

The problem with the Wingate is that it’s not ideal for sedentary people. This includes folks with certain metabolic diseases (like diabetes) and people unable to perform activities like walking up stairs.

But there’s good news. A follow-up study done by the McMasters researchers found that even with decreasing the intensity of the workout, people still enjoyed the same benefits.

HIIT can benefit most people, even those with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The key is to start at lower levels and build up slowly.

In addition to weight loss and improved cardiovascular health, HIIT also builds muscle tissue.

Most people don’t know this, but once we turn 30, we start losing as much as 5% of our muscle mass every decade, a condition known as sarcopenia. But working your muscles regularly preserves and can even increase muscle mass. Working muscles hard also increases metabolism, which helps generate body heat. This is great for seniors who often feel cold.

But here’s the thing, HIIT has even more powerful effects. It reduces blood pressure and improves cholesterol levels. And HIIT also increases something called “gastrointestinal transit speed.” (This is how quickly something moves through your colon.) Improved GI transit speed reduces the risk of colon cancer as well. HIIT eases arthritis, improves bone mineral density, and reduces lower back pain. Finally, muscle growth through HIIT improves seniors’ walking endurance and balance.

To help get you started, we’ve produced a simple HIIT regime below. We encourage you to cut it out and post it somewhere you can exercise…

I realize you might think this is too difficult – after all, anything with “intensity” can sound intimidating. So if you’re apprehensive, just start with walking. We know there’s benefit to walking just 6,000 steps per day.

But if you do want to try HIIT, I’d recommend starting with fast walking. And it’s exactly as it sounds. You walk a few minutes to warm up, then walk fast for three minutes, then slow to a crawl, then fast again. You can see the chart below for more details.

The next stage up is an intermediate HIIT. Here’s what I do: I walk on a treadmill (or bike, or aerobic-exercise contraption) at a slow pace to warm-up. Then, I increase the pace to about two miles per hour (turtles crawl faster). Then, for 20-30 seconds, I crank it up as fast as I can go with increased resistance. (For instance, I will increase the treadmill’s incline to 3%-4%.)

That means I’m doing a fast cadence at a hard resistance, but only for 30 seconds. Then, I go back to slow pace and zero resistance for two to three minutes and then repeat a couple more times. In 10 minutes, I’m done. I don’t even work up a sweat.

You can see this routine – and one other harder HIIT routine – in this table.

You can use these HIIT exercises on exercise machines like rowers, treadmills, and stationary bikes. You can also use HIIT without any gym equipment. You can find a list of exercises here.

The best part is that you can do it in your street clothes (but please keep in mind that some gyms have a workout-clothes-only policy).

There’s a lot more about high intensity interval training we don’t have room to discuss here.

If you’re interested in learning more or starting your own HIIT program, there are a few books I recommend you read:

Like any exercise program, HIIT does carry risks, especially if you’re starting from a sedentary lifestyle. An Ironman athlete we spoke with (who uses HIIT for his training) suggested doing HIIT once or twice a week. This gives your body time to recover, so you avoid injury. However, as I mentioned before, HIIT may not be for everyone. Research shows it’s safe, but you should always discuss your plans with your doctor.

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