It’s never too late to get in shape. Now, new research shows kicking up the intensity beyond simple basics does even more.
Researchers from the University of Colorado and Humboldt State University in California found that adults over age 65 who ran at least 30 minutes, three times a week, were less likely to see their fitness falter over time when compared to other people their age who simply walked.
Older joggers were 7 to 10 percent more efficient at walking than older adults who just walked for exercise. In fact, the 65+ adults' metabolic cost (the amount of energy needed to move) was similar to people in their 20s. The increased metabolic cost contributes to making walking more difficult and tiring as we age.
Although researchers are unsure what makes joggers more efficient than walkers, evidence suggests that people who exercise vigorously have healthier mitochondria (part of the cell responsible for energy production) in their muscles.
“When you do higher intensity aerobic activities you train your muscles and joints to move more rapidly, which makes slower activities such as walking much less taxing,” says Michele Olson, professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala.
“Put simply, a higher trained heart and muscular system lessen the effort you have to put in to many lower intensity activities.”
Although higher intensity workouts produce greater benefit, jumping into an advanced program too soon or without proper instruction can result in injuries. Experts offer tips for safe high intensity workouts:
Get a Physical
If you’re over 50, especially if you’ve been sedentary, it’s a good idea to get a complete physical before starting a vigorous exercise regimen.
“We recommend a physician-administered history and physical and graded exercise tolerance test prior to starting a high-intensity cardiovascular exercise program,” says Scott Danberg, director of fitness at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, Fla.
A comprehensive evaluation provides information for determining target heart rate zone, heart rate limits, exercise blood pressure response (some people may experience an unhealthy spike during exercise) and, if necessary, blood pressure monitoring during high-intensity exercise. Present and prior injuries, joint pain and joint and limb range of motion limitations are also taken into account.
Once your doctor gives you the go-ahead, start slowly and work your way up. Overdoing any activity, even stretching, can cause joint injuries, says Olson.
“This occurs when you do not allow your body enough rest,” she says.
You also don’t have to exercise for as long to get the same benefits. If you switch from walking to running you can cut down your workout time.
Olson recommends starting with a walk-jog interval program and getting more vigorous over time: Begin by walking two minutes and jogging one minute. Gradually increase the jogging intervals and decrease the walking intervals as you become more fit.
Wear Appropriate Shoes
Running requires more cushion so your walking shoes may not have the proper amount of shock absorption, says Olson. You'll want extra padding in the sole to protect your heel and foot bones from the higher impact of each foot strike.
(MORE: What to Know About Health at 50, 60, 70)
A slightly higher cushion can work against you if you’re wearing the same shoes for a sculpting class, though, since they can increase the risk of an ankle sprain.
“This requires a lower-soled shoe with more side-to-side stability,” says Olson. “And keep in mind, jogging does not mean fast running or sprinting. But since jogging involves impact, the proper amount can actually be healthy, increasing the density of your bones.”
Think “Higher” Intensity, Not All-Out
Many studies on high-intensity workouts call for going “all-out” for short time increments, which isn’t a great idea for beginners.
For example, the extreme Tabata workout calls for 20 seconds of intense work followed by 10 seconds of rest for eight rounds, over a total of four minutes. Although four minutes doesn’t sound like much, it’s extremely taxing.
“As with any program, you need to build it through gradual progressions,” says Mark Nutting, fitness director of SACO Sport & Fitness in Saco, Maine. “High-ntensity interval training should be thought of as ‘higher’ intensity interval training — higher than you have been doing, but not all-out.”
Nutting uses Tabata by starting his clients with only four rounds and building to a full eight rounds. “The key is to first feel what it’s like to work at a higher level than you’ve been working and then bit-by-bit keep increasing the intensity,” he says.
Learn Perfect Form
Even if you’re in shape and work out regularly, if your routine consists of traditional weight training movements and cardio machines, an exercise program such as P90X is entirely different, says Nutting.
“Every exercise should be learned, practiced, and gradually built to higher intensities,” he notes.
Ideally, it’s best to seek the advice of a qualified trainer who understands your goals and needs, even if you hire one for only a session or two. Alternatively, look for routines on YouTube or on DVDs developed by experts in the field.
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