Does simply looking at a treadmill make you age by 10 years? High-intensity interval training (HIIT) may solve that problem. While it may seem counterintuitive to ramp up your workout’s intensity as you grow older, there’s a method to the madness. These fast-paced exercises—which require short bursts of heavy cardio followed by less intense “rest” periods—can boost your metabolism, manage your blood sugar levels, and torch calories in no time. And now, a new study is adding one more perk to that list: it can actually reverse your cells’ aging process.
Mayo Clinic researchers recruited 72 sedentary adults ranging from 18 to 80 years old and assigned them to one of three 12-week workout programs: high-intensity interval cycling, strength training with weights, or a combined strength-training and cycling plan. Throughout the study, the research team tracked volunteers’ progress via improvements in their leg strength, lean muscle mass, oxygen capacity, and insulin sensitivity. They also biopsied tissue samples and analyzed cells from the volunteers’ thighs.
All three exercise groups showed improvements in their lean muscle and aerobic capacity by the end of the 12-week session, the researchers reported. However, only those in the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) group reaped the most benefits in their mitochondrial performance, or the cell’s ability to convert oxygen into energy. The younger and older volunteers experienced a 49 percent and 69 percent increase, respectively. Meanwhile, nobody in the strength-training program saw significant improvements in their mitochondrial capacity, and only the group of younger participants in the combined training group did.
But why do these results matter for aging? “Mitochondria and ribosomes are organelles that are important for metabolism and aerobic fitness, but tend to deteriorate as people get older,” Health reports. “Keeping these structures healthy can reverse some signs of age-related decline within cells.” Practice these simple anti-aging secrets in between your HIIT workouts, and you could add additional years to your life.
However, there’s just one catch to this miracle workout: It’s not going to be much fun.
“If you can take an hour of exercise and squeeze it into one minute, there’s a price to pay,” Panteleimon Ekkekakis, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, said. “The price is 100 percent intensity. It’s undeniable that the experience will be unpleasant.”
In order to keep you on the move (and prevent burnout!), researchers recommend building intensity at a gradual pace over time. Try starting with a 15-minute workout that begins vigorously and slowly decreases to a lower intensity. Ekkekakis’s study found that adults who did this routine were more likely to report increasing pleasure during and after exercise—and still remembered it as a positive experience up to a week later.
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