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“If people have to pick one exercise, I would recommend high-intensity interval training, but I think it would be beneficial if they could do…interval training and…strength training… Based on everything we know, there’s no substitute for these exercise programs when it comes to delaying the aging process.” Sreekumaran Nair, MD, senior author of the new Mayo Clinic study (Medical News Today, March 8, 2017)


High-Intensity Interval Training (and Combined Training) Rejuvenate Aging Muscles

Intensity Trumps Duration

While I was busy getting my hip replaced, I was bombarded with emails telling me about the new study from the Mayo Clinic finding that high-intensity interval training reverses the aging process in older adults.

“I’m thinking they’re a little late to the party, but maybe the research clarifies or furthers what we already know about the effects at the cellular level,” one longtime correspondent wrote. “It puts the science to your recommendations of combining HIIT and resistance training,” another reader added.

Let’s look at what’s new and how it complements what we already knew.

Interval training has been around for a very long time. Emil Zatopek used intervals to help him win the 5,000 meter, 10,000 meter and marathon, all in one Olympics. Intervals were also an important part of Roger Bannister’s training to run the first sub-4 minute mile: http://www.cbass.com/PerfectMile.htm

Those momentous achievements occurred in 1952 and 1954.

I recommended intervals to bodybuilders in Ripped 3, published in 1986, calling for “bursts of high-intensity muscular effort in every aerobic session.”

Dr. Izumi Tabata was, however, the first to catch the attention of a wide span of fitness enthusiasts with what came to be known as the Tabata protocol: 20 seconds all-out and 10 seconds easy repeated 6 to 8 times. In 1996, he reported one of the fastest rates of increase in VO2max ever recorded using his protocol: http://www.cbass.com/FATBURN.HTM

The problem was that the protocol left you flat on your back gasping for air. Few people were willing to do it.

Martin Gibala, PhD, and his group at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, was the first to develop and prove the benefits of interval routines that people were actually willing to do. See my article on Sub-Max Intervals: http://www.cbass.com/SubMaxIntervals.htm

Professor Gibala’s book The One Minute Workout (Avery, 2017), covers intervals from A to Z: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=The+One+Minute+Workout+by+Gibala

The New Study

With all that water under the bridge, what’s new about the findings in the Mayo Clinic study? It’s about the effect on cells in older muscles. Their findings, published March 7, 2017 in the journal Cell Metabolism, suggest that high-intensity intervals can stop cellular aging and, in some cases, rejuvenate the cells that repair damage in the body. That’s big. Let’s look at the details.

As we’ve written here before, many researchers see aging as a mitochondrial disease. The mitochondria—which create 90 percent of the energy needed to sustain life—are believed to undergo age-related damage, which slows energy generation. Defective mitochondria appear as we get older, robbing us of endurance and function. http://www.cbass.com/Olga&Ed.htm

Fast twitch muscle fibers, which include mitochondria, are also a major factor. A loss of fast-twitch fibers is the main reason we lose speed and strength as we get older. http://www.cbass.com/BendingTheAgingCurve.htm

Both factors appear to be at work in the Mayo Clinic study.

Young (aged 18 to 30) and older (aged between 65 and 80) men and women were split into three exercise groups: high-intensity interval biking, strength training using weights, and a combination of interval and strength training.

Taking a biopsy from each volunteer’s thigh muscle, they compared the molecular makeup and lean muscle mass of each group, along with sedentary controls.

While strength training was more effective at building muscle, high-intensity interval training had a greater effect at a cellular level, especially on mitochondria. While that was to be expected, the responsiveness of the older volunteers was something of a surprise.

Younger volunteers doing interval training showed a 49 percent increase in mitochondrial capacity, while the older group saw an impressive 69 percent increase.

The researchers also found that HIIT encouraged cells to make more copies of the genes that produce mitochondrial proteins and protein responsible for muscle growth.

Protein production is important for slowing functional decline. As senior author Sreekumaran Nair, MD, explained, “Muscle is not readily regrown. If exercise can restore or minimize the deterioration of muscle cells, there is a good chance that it does the same in other tissues.”

“Based on everything we know, there’s no substitute for these exercise programs [HIIT and strength] when it comes to delaying the aging process,” Nair explained. “These things we are seeing cannot be done by any medicine,” he added. “Exercise is critically important to prevent or delay aging.”

“If people have to pick one exercise,” he advised, “I would recommend high-intensity interval training, but I think it would be beneficial if they could do three or four days of interval training and then a couple days of strength training.”

Resistance training is necessary to build and maintain the fast-twitch muscle fibers needed for active and independent living—and avoid falling.

Science News summarized the findings as follows:

Researchers have long suspected that the benefits of exercise extend down to the cellular level, but know relatively little about which exercises help cells rebuild key organelles that deteriorate with aging. A new study found that exercise -- and in particular high-intensity interval training in aerobic exercises such as biking and walking -- caused cells to make more proteins for their energy-producing mitochondria and their protein-building ribosomes, effectively stopping aging at the cellular level.

The full citation of the study is Robinson et al, 2017, Cell Metabolism 25, 581-592

Intensity Trumps Duration

The intervals in the Mayo Clinic study called for pedaling hard for four minutes, resting for three minutes and then repeating three more times. Three times a week. Done properly that’s pretty darn hard. Few people will be willing to do that on their own. And then we have Dr. Nair suggesting that a couple of strength workouts be added.

They seem to have forgotten the lesson of the Tabata protocol. No exercise regimen will work if people are not willing to do it. Especially three times a week, with two strength workouts added for good measure.

Professor Gibala tells us in The One Minute Workout that short work periods are more fun. That’s my experience as well. My favorite interval protocol is 30 seconds hard and 90 seconds of recovery, three times. With two minutes of warm-up and two cooldown, the total workout takes 10 minutes. I do this protocol on the Concept 2 Ski Erg and on the C2 Rower—once a week. Done properly that combination is very hard. But limited to once a week it’s challenging and doable.

I also do a full body strength workout once a week—adding the same interval protocol on the Schwinn Airdyne (bike with push-pull arm action) every other week. I do a longer foothills interval workout the other week, using several different hills for the work periods.

In summary, I do two interval workouts each week, using four different modes of training for variety.

This has worked very well for me over a period of years. Dr. Gibala emphasizes intensity over duration, telling readers that numerous studies have proven that intensity trumps duration at the molecular level. Interval training triggers the same adaptations as endurance training—in a fraction of the time. Reminds me of Arthur Jones preaching that short hard weight workouts are best. “You can go long or hard, but you can’t do both,” according to Jones. That’s my experience with weights and intervals.

 This photo, taken by Guy Appelman in the foothills above our home, shows the results of combining short hard intervals and weight training.

Frankly, I hate the idea of going hard for four minutes. Way too much time to think. Just not my cup of tea. But I’m not an endurance athlete. Galen Rupp would no doubt consider 4 minutes a romp in the park. Where do you stand?

Think about it and decide what you are willing to do and keep doing. You might try both long and short work periods. It won’t take long to decide which you enjoy and are willing to do over time.

You’ll find 8 basic interval workouts in Gibala’s book, along with 4 “Microworkouts” fulfilling the “One Minute Workout” promise of his book. You’re sure to find a workout or workouts that appeal to you. You can always change from time to time. Experiment. Make up your own interval workouts. Gibala’s book will give you plenty of ideas.

The Mayo Clinic study shows that HIIT is even better than we thought, very likely rejuvenating the entire body.

Include HIIT in your exercise plan—but do it a way that you enjoy and are willing to keep doing. Remember that no form of exercise will work unless you are willing to do it regularly.

June 1, 2017

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