Short bursts of exercise can transform health of elderly people

The health of elderly people can be dramatically improved with high-intensity training (HIT) a new study carried out by a team of scientists at Abertay University has shown. Thepilot study involving 12 pensioners is the first time that HIT, which involves pushing yourself to your limits for a short period of time, has been tested in an older population.

In the study participants were divided into two groups, with one acting as a control and the other required to take part in two sessions of high-intensity training per week. Each session consisted of 6-second all-out sprints on an exercise bike, with each participant fitted with a heart rate monitor throughout. The number of sprints in each session was progressively increased over the course of the trial from 6 x 6-second sprints to 10 x 6-second sprints. A minimum of one minute recovery time was allowed between each sprint, and participants were not allowed to start sprinting again until their heart rate had gone back down to below 120bpm.

The results showed participants had reduced their blood pressure by 9%, increased their ability to get oxygen to their muscles and found day-to-day activities like getting out of a chair or walking the dog easier.

Dr John Babraj, a Lecturer in Exercise Physiology at Abertay University, led the research.

He states: "We've got an ageing population and if we don't encourage them to be active, the economic burden of that is going to be astronomical.

"A lot of diseases are associated with sedentary behaviour - like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but if we can keep people active and functioning then we can reduce the risk.”

Dr John Babraj explains further: "The ageing process is generally looked on quite negatively by society, with everyone knowing that you find it more difficult to carry out day-to-day activities like standing up from your chair, or carrying your shopping, as you get older.

"What we found with this study - which involves doing just one minute of exercise twice week - is that it not only improved the participants’ physical health and ability to do these things, but also their perceptions of their own ability to engage in physical activity. They enjoyed it, were delighted with the effects it had on their health and, on top of that, felt they could fit it into their lives, which is something they aren’t able to do with current exercise recommendations.”

More than 10 million people in the UK are over 65 and that figure is set to rise. Although it is well-known that exercise can help reduce the effects of these age-related declines and can improve quality of life, the majority of older people find it difficult to meet the current exercise guidelines. These consist of performing moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity, such as fast walking or running, several days per week.

Dr Babraj says elderly people should see their doctor first to ensure there were no underlying health issues before trying HIT.

"Then the easiest way to do it yourself is to run up a hill, the steeper the hill, the harder it's going to be, give it everything you've got for six seconds," he says.

Larger trials are now planned.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

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