Think You Can’t Do High-Intensity Interval Training? Think Again

More people can do HIIT than you'd think

Woman on rowing machine as part of her interval training

Regular physical activity has well-documented health benefits from reduced risk for heart disease to better sleep. And that means for everyone (yes, you!), regardless of age or any chronic diseases or conditions you may have.

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

“As people get older and have aches and pains, they tend to think they should take it easy,” physical therapist Mary Morrison, PT, DScPT says. In fact, the opposite is true.

Why you shouldn’t slow down

The National Institutes of Health makes recommendations about what type of exercise, how intense and how long is best. That’s based on a wealth of evidence. Yet most adults aren’t getting enough exercise in general, and only half get enough exercise aerobic exercise.

Aerobic exercise is the type of activity that gets your heart beating faster, and you breathe harder than normal. Adults should get at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.

The alternative is 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity. This is where the popular high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can play a role.

You may have heard about HIIT but thought it didn’t apply to you because of your age, joint pain or other health problems. But almost anyone can do HIIT.

What is HIIT?

The concept behind HIIT is to do short bursts of very high-intensity activity interspersed with less-intense activity. A session of HIIT takes about 25 to 30 minutes, which includes a warm-up and a cool-down period. Do that three times a week to meet the recommended aerobic exercise goal.

Advertising Policy

The activity can be any aerobic exercise, like running, brisk walking, biking or using equipment like a stationary bike, treadmill, stair climber or rowing machine.

If you have hip or knee pain, Morrison suggests using a stationary bicycle, which puts less stress on these weight-bearing joints. You can use a stationary bike at the gym, or buy one. Inexpensive and used ones are easy to find.

A recent study found that a HIIT cycle program was feasible for middle-aged and older adults with knee osteoarthritis and that it produced greater improvements in physical function than a continuous moderate-intensity cycling program.

HIIT has also been found to be well-tolerated and beneficial for people with other types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis.

How do you do HIIT?

If you’re just starting out, ease into it. “Start with longer periods at a comfortable pace,” she suggests. For example, switch between 30 seconds of very high-intensity activity and two to three minutes of slower activity.

For the high-intensity bursts, you really need to push yourself. “For exercise to be effective, it has to be hard,” Morrison says. Some people think they can’t do it, but they usually can in short bursts. “And it can be fun,” she says.

Advertising Policy

What level of exertion are you aiming for?

How do you know if you’re working hard enough? Level of exertion varies from person to person depending on fitness level. You may be pedaling at the same pace as the person next to you. But while you huff and puff, she’s breathing easily. You can measure your level of exertion in a few ways.

The first is to rate the level that you perceive you are working on a scale from 0 (rest) to 10 (maximum effort). Using the talk test, at high intensity you should only be able to speak a few words at a time.

You can also use a heart rate monitor. Aim for 70% to 90% of your maximum heart rate during the high-intensity bursts. The formula for maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. (Note: If you’re on medication for high blood pressure or other heart issues, this method won’t work because the medications tamp down the heart response.)

Is HIIT safe?

If you have heart disease or any health concerns, consult your doctor before starting a HIIT program. Morrison notes that HIIT has been shown to be not only safe for people with heart disease, but beneficial.

This article first appeared in Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Advisor.

Advertising Policy
Advertising Policy