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Short-burst exercise may improve elderly health

New research undertaken in Scotland has revealed that high intensity training (HIT), which consists of short six-second bursts of vigorous exercise, may benefit the elderly.

The pilot study involving 12 pensioners showed that maximum-intensity exercise reduced blood pressure and improved fitness of the participants.

The importance of these findings could help with the burden of cost for an “ageing population”, according to researcher Dr John Babraj.

HIT differs from conventional exercise in that its duration is much shorter, however the potential benefits may be similar, according to the study.

John Babraj told the BBC: "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.

"Also on the social side, they are less likely to be socially active and will interact with people more."

In the first-time trials, the group of pensioners were pushed to their limits on exercise bike for six seconds and followed by lab tests twice a week for six weeks.

Following the initial six seconds of full-intensity exercise, their heart rate was allowed to return to normal and then proceeded with another period of all-out activity, until they reached a full minute of working-out. 

The results were published in the American Geriatrics Society and showed that the participating pensioners had reduced their blood pressure by 9%, increased their ability to transport oxygen to their muscles and found day-to-day activities such as walking the dog much easier.

There are more than 10 million over 65s in the UK and with this figure set to rise, HIT may prove to be valuable in reducing strain on the NHS, the researchers believe.

Higher heart rate and blood pressure caused by exercise can be a trigger for heart attack and strokes.

Short strenuous activity is thought to be safer than conventional exercise and Babraj told the BBC that running for long periods “puts a greater stain on the heart overall”, despite the vigorous nature of HIT.

Dr Babraj believes that the high-intensity exercise would be easier to fit into the busy schedules of older people, considering many are full-time carers.

People should contact their doctors before trying it to make sure they have no underlying health issues, according to Babraj.

A consultant and honorary secretary of the British Geriatrics Society, Dr Adam Gordon told the BBC: "This is a brilliant, fantastic piece of work challenging assumptions about what the right type of exercise is in old age, but I'd encourage them to investigate the benefits in even older and even more frail people.

"The broad message is that you're never too old, too frail, too ill to benefit from exercise, as long as it's carefully chosen. We know even into your 80s and 90s there's a benefit from developing a very slight sweat by exercising on multiple occasions per week."