The personal health and economic burden of physical inactivity is receiving justifiably growing recognition. This burden may be greatest for the elderly where the gap between recommended levels of physical activity and actual activity is most pronounced. This gap was recently highlighted in a national analysis of Australian health (Australia’s Health 2014). But what should we do about it? Effective educational initiatives at all levels of the health system are required. While building greater physical activity into daily life would undoubtedly be beneficial particularly for obesity-related disease, the potential benefits of short-duration high-intensity exercise are increasingly being demonstrated. Initially established in athletes (Jakeman et al 2012), these benefits occur in those with much lower fitness levels (for review see: Gibala et al 2012). A recent letter to the Editor by Adamson and colleagues in Dundee, Scotland will open a debate at a new level.
They report health benefits in the elderly, both measured and perceived, with very short high intensity training. The group sizes were small, 6, with participants aged ~65 years. Training consisted of 6-10 bursts of 6-second cycling performed twice a week for 6 weeks. What were the main outcomes? Within the exercise group but not within the control group, systolic blood pressure dropped (from 155 ± 16 [SD] to 148 ± 15), estimated maximal oxygen uptake increased (from 30.3 ± 4.0 [ml/kg/min] to 32.8 ± 3.0), time for 50 m walk decreased (from 34.8 ± 2.7 s to 32.2 ± 1.7 s), as did time for ‘get up and go’ (from 6.5 ± 0.8 s to 5.8 ± 0.65 s). Perceived physical functioning also improved significantly in the exercising group.
What can we derive from the study? First, the authors should be congratulated for demonstrating the potential practicality of an intervention based on very brief high-intensity exercise in an elderly group. Second, while we should be wary of putting much weight on small, early intervention studies, the benefits seen in the very brief, high-intensity exercise groups are what might be expected from enhanced peripheral muscle function with a probably flow-on effect onto longer-term cardiovascular risk. Third, new trials of longer duration in larger groups of elderly participants with longer period of follow-ups are justifiable and should be conducted with urgency.
Adamson SB, Lorimer R, Cobley JN, Babraj JA (2014), Extremely Short–Duration High-Intensity Training Substantially Improves the Physical Function and Self-Reported Health Status of Elderly Adults. J Am Geriatr Soc 62: 1380–1381.
Gibala MJ, Little JP, MacDonald MJ, Hawley JA (2012). Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease. J Physiol 590: 1077-1084.
Adamson SB, Lorimer R, Cobley JN, Lloyd R, Babraj JA (2014). High Intensity Training Improves Health and Physical Function in Middle Aged Adults. Biology 3: 333-344.
Jakeman J, Adamson S, Babraj J (2012). Extremely short duration high-intensity training substantially improves endurance performance in triathletes. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 3: 976-81.