Getting Active for Optimal Ageing

Written by: Dr John Babraj, Lecturer, Abertay University - School of Social & Health Sciences

Published: 13/08/2015

Our latest viewpoint looks at how ageing and physical activity complement each other,

Ageing is associated with a gradual decline in our physical capabilities and an increase in ill health. This is the general consensus on what happens with ageing but it doesn’t have to be like this.

We all get older but it doesn’t have to lead to poor physical function and chronic diseases such as hypertension or type 2 diabetes. Being active and taking part in regular exercise has been shown to improve physical function and health of older adults. However the majority of older adults fail to take part in regular exercise and within Scotland only 20% of the older population meet the current regulations.

There are a number of barriers to exercise that have been reported in the older population, with time consistently being reported as one of the major issues. This suggests that current recommendations for exercise and health are failing to take into account the barriers that people have to exercise. Therefore there is a need to find alternative activities that help to improve health and physical function and promote engagement in physical activity.

At Abertay University we have been developing an exercise protocol that is time efficient and can be used by older people. This training protocol is based on high intensity training. The training involves pedalling on a cycle ergometer as hard as you can for 6 seconds and then having a period of recovery. This rest period was determined by the time taken for your heart rate to return to below 120 beats per minute. This was repeated for a maximum of 10 times in a session, with training sessions taking place twice weekly. Most people who have taken part are in training for a maximum of 15 minutes with only 60 seconds of that time being spent in activity.

The findings from these studies show that this type of exercise can improve physical capacity in older adults by 20% in just 6 weeks. However, not only is it a measurable change but the people also report feeling more physically capable. This meant that they were much more likely to do things that they found daunting previously. As well as improvements in physical function we also saw major improvements in certain aspects of health. Following 8 weeks of training fasting blood glucose was reduced by 16% and the ability to remove excess blood glucose from the blood was improved by 11%. Therefore older adults doing high intensity training drastically reduced the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.

Over 10 weeks of high intensity training we see dramatic improvements in cardiovascular health. As we age our blood vessels get stiffer and less compliant which leads to hypertension. Following HIT arterial stiffness as assessed by pulse pressure is reduced by 10% which is accompanied by an 8% reduction in hypertension. Further we see a 20% reduction in circulating lipids. Taken together this reduces the risk of many cardiovascular diseases such as stroke and heart attack.

In summary, 2 minutes of intermittent exercise per week, that is performed at your maximum effort, has the ability to dramatically improve health and wellbeing of older adults. As we age it is not what we do but how hard we work when doing it that will allow us to fully enjoy our later years.

Dr John Babraj


SHS Sport & Exercise Science

Abertay University

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