In the news: The Best Exercise For Aging Muscles?

The New York Times recently published an article reporting on a study cited in Cell Metabolism (accessed here). The study attempts to answer the question:

What is the best exercise for aging muscles?

Jumping straight to the punch line, the study concludes that high-intensity interval training can improve age-related decline in both the oxidation capacity and the number of muscle mitochondria we possess resulting in bigger and stronger muscles.

Here’s the abridged version of the study according to the article:

72 sedentary but healthy men and women under the age of 30 or over the age of 64 were chosen. Baseline health metrics were taken and each person was randomly assigned to one of four exercise options over the next 12 weeks:

  • High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) 3 times per week (defined as riding a stationary bike hard for 4 minutes, resting 3 minutes and then repeating that sequence 3 more times),
  • Vigorous Weight Training (VWT),
  • a combination of moderately paced stationary biking
  • OR light weight lifting (COMBO), or no exercise at all.

At the end of 12 weeks, the same metrics measured before were measured after and here is what they found: everyone who exercised saw improvement in their fitness and ability to regulate their blood sugar, the VWT group saw the greatest gains in muscle mass and strength and the HIIT group saw the greatest gain in aerobic capacity.

No surprises there.

Then they went deeper into the muscle cells (via biopsy) and looked at activity at the genetic level. Genes were affected (they believed) in their ability to influence the number and health of mitochondria for the better. Taking you back to 5th grade science class, mitochondria are the power plants of the cells. They produce energy in your muscle cells so better mitochondria = better and bigger muscles.

For both the young and old exercisers, the weight lifters had the fewest number of genes affected, the combo group had the next highest number of affected genes but the HIIT group had the most. What was most surprising is the younger group saw change in 274 genes while the older group saw the biggest impact of all with change in almost 400 genes.

The study suggests that the cells of older people responded much more dramatically to the HIIT exercise routine than did the cells of the younger crowd.

Great news if you have aging muscles, however, it begets another question:

Is High Intensity Interval Training right for me?

It’s called “high intensity” for a reason so it is something that should be given some serious thought before diving right in.  There are many factors that go into deciding if it is time to bring intensity to your workouts. Watch for our next blog post “Is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) right for you?” that explores this question and provides the real answer to which type of exercise is best for you.

Thanks for reading and whether it’s time to get intense or not, keep moving!

8 thoughts on “In the news: The Best Exercise For Aging Muscles?”

  1. The high intensity workouts can lead to burn out, since they are far more uncomfortable than steady pacing. I would be interested in a 5 year study of these groups. I suspect the rapid gains of the Very high intensity groups would be great at first, but at 5 years, the differences would not be so significant. The high intensity group would get injured or lose enthusiasm and consistency over the long haul.

  2. Hoping to do some intervals today. If you smell something burning, it’s me.

  3. I miss my teachers. I cannot thank them enough for the kindness and guidance they provided me.

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