Older People Should Not Shy Away From High-Intensity Exercise, Study Suggests

older man going for a run

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Key Takeaways

  • A study of people in their 70s found that high-intensity exercise showed the best results for longevity.
  • In other research, adding high-impact exercises into the mix was found to help with bone density.
  • Experts suggest one to two HIIT workouts per week, and starting with advice from a credentialed trainer—as well as getting your doctor's approval.

A five-year study of Norwegian adults in their 70s found that those who did two weekly sessions of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) had lower early mortality rates compared to those who followed Norway's national exercise guidelines or did lower-intensity training.

The results, published in BMJ , noted that exercise intensity, even at peak levels, seemed to be safe for the 1,567 participants. However, they did add that about 80% of them reported medium or high physical activity levels going into the study, so some of the benefits could come from regular exercise before age 70.

What About High-Impact Exercise?

In addition to being advised to pursue low-intensity activities, older adults are often advised to pursue low-impact workouts as well, and there's a prevailing belief that exercise like that is easier on the joints. But that assumption is actually up for debate, and some researchers are trying to encourage older exercisers to get out of the low-impact rut and start doing some jumping.

"We act like older adults are so fragile, and they can't handle intensity and impact or it will destroy their bones and joints, but we've found the opposite is true," says Belinda Beck, PhD, researcher at Griffith University in Australia and director of The Bone Clinic, a health service focusing on bone, muscle, and joint health.

Belinda Beck, PhD

We act like older adults are so fragile, and they can't handle intensity and impact or it will destroy their bones and joints, but we've found the opposite is true.

— Belinda Beck, PhD

Both animal and human studies have indicated that bone only responds to high-intensity activity, she says, but there's been reluctance by clinicians to recommend resistance and impact training as a way to build bone density.

"Instead, we give older people, especially women, medication to increase their bone mass, but that's not always 100% effective, and there can be side effects," she says. "I'm not against medication if it's needed, but to think that's the only way to build bone is completely incorrect."

Resistance Training and Bone Mass

To determine whether a high-intensity resistance and impact training program (HiRIT) was safe and efficacious for improving bone mass in people with osteoporosis, Beck and fellow researchers conducted two separate studies. The first involved 101 women, with about half in a HiRIT program and the other half in a low-intensity program. Both groups worked out regularly for eight months.

The results, published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, showed significant improvement in bone mass density in the HiRIT group compared to the low-intensity group, as well as several gains in functional performance and mobility.

In a follow-up done in 2019, researchers found that those in the HiRIT group continued to have better bone density than the other participants, even if they had not done any high-intensity, high-impact workouts since the initial trial period.

"This was great to see," says Beck. "It means that this exercise is so effective at reducing risk of osteoporotic fracture, and that the bone density gains you get from it don't reverse after you stop. Of course, the best approach of all is to continue the exercise on a regular basis, no matter what your age."

The Magic Combination

As the recent study and Beck's research suggest, older adults who combine high-intensity workouts along with some degree of impact may see the best results when it comes to potential health gains.

Not only does bone density improve, but these workouts also bring a range of benefits, including:

  • Improved mood
  • Decreased risk of falls due to better balance and strength
  • Social engagement
  • Cardiovascular health gains
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Better sleep

"With this type of combination, we see better mobility and muscle mass, and that has so many advantages," says Vanessa Yingling, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University, East Bay. "Not only are you lowering potential health risks in the future, but you're also maintaining what you have in terms of bone density, muscle strength, and mobility."

Vanessa Yingling, PhD

Blending together high-impact, high-intensity exercise sessions with other, low-impact types can be a great way to stay active for the long term.

— Vanessa Yingling, PhD

She adds that another plus is that these kinds of workouts—such as a Tabata or HIIT session—are usually short, and it's advised to do them just once or twice per week, with rest days in between. That's when older adults might do lower-impact activities they like, Yingling says, such as swimming, brisk walking, or yoga, which all have benefits as well. 

"Blending together high-impact, high-intensity exercise sessions with other, low-impact types can be a great way to stay active for the long term," she says, adding that for those who are fairly sedentary, seeking the advice of a credentialed trainer or physical therapist can be helpful for putting a workout plan together.

What This Means for You

Incorporating regular fitness activities into your routine is beneficial at any age, but there could be unique advantages if you're over the age of 65. If you aren't used to exercising you can start small and build up to more vigorous activity.

Also, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before starting any type of high-intensity program, especially if you have chronic conditions or mobility issues.


7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Mekari S, Earle M, Martins R, et al. Effect of high intensity interval training compared to continuous training on cognitive performance in young healthy adults: a pilot study. Brain Sci. 2020;10(2):81. doi:10.3390/brainsci10020081

  7. Jurado-Fasoli L, De-la-O A, Molina-Hidalgo C, Migueles JH, Castillo MJ, Amaro-Gahete FJ. Exercise training improves sleep quality: a randomized controlled trial. Eur J Clin Invest. 2020;50(3):e13202. doi:10.1111/eci.13202

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.