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  • Writer's pictureMary Brooking

Intensity? Dial it up please!

Society sends strong messages that as we age we need to slow down, but having one or two high intensity exercise sessions a week is hugely beneficial and arguably for women perhaps even more important than when we were younger. Whether its hill sprints or mountain climbers these short, fun sessions should improve fitness & body composition as well as being great stress-busters and having an anti-inflammatory effect.

What is high intensity interval training (HIIT)? In HIIT alternating short bursts of hard exercise are followed by relatively short recovery periods. The intervals are typically 20 to 60 seconds of work and 10 to 30 seconds of rest. While the rest period is short, it’s just enough to prepare for the next interval of work. The effort level, about 8/10 or above or to the point where you are breathless, is such that your heart rate gets to above 85% of its maximum during the intervals, . Recoveries should bring breathing back under control. Because of their intensity HIIT workouts can be short (10 - 30 minutes), perfect for a day when you don’t have time for long, slow endurance type activity. A 5 - 10 minute warm up and 5 minute cool down form vital parts of the session to reduce injury risk and to promote the recovery needed. The type of efforts involved can take many forms but often include whole body exercises which involve lots of major muscle groups or high intensity running or cycling. This use of a lot of muscles, working close to flat out, has a high energy demand. Fat is metabolised for fuel during the workout but due to the intensity of the efforts the body’s metabolism stays elevated and continues to burn more calories than normal and tap into fat stores for the energy required to restore it to its normal resting state for up to 48 hours after the workout. HIIT also places a significant amount of metabolic stress on muscle tissue. The body responds to repair damaged muscle proteins, which lead to increases in muscle volume and definition.

How can it benefit us? - Improved aerobic capacity, cardiovascular fitness, stamina & endurance. - Improvement in body composition: increasing muscle mass and reducing fat, particularly abdominal or belly fat. - Trains body to tolerate and quickly recover from periods of high-intensity exercise - Stress release: It’s hard and your legs may be screaming at you to stop but its a great stress-reducer; important for both your mental & physical health - Prevents overuse injuries by including variety into routine - Building a more balanced body including core strength: HIIT training can help you work more muscle groups and strengthen weak areas. The lateral & rotational movements in many HIIT exercises work and strengthen the whole body. - Increase running explosiveness and speed: moves like lunge jumps, squat jumps, and jumping jacks to help build speed and strength. - Triggers an anti-inflammatory response, helping overall health and recovery from activity Why are women particularly benefitted? For menopausal and perimenopausal women HIIT sessions can provide the metabolic stimulus to trigger the benefits our hormones helped achieve in our premenopausal years, making them especially important to add to our training programme in our 40s & 50s. As we reach perimenopause our body burns less fat at rest and stores more of it; HIIT reverses that effect. The stress hormone, cortisol. level rises during menopause, creating a cycle of storing more belly fat and higher cortisol. HIIT again counteracts this change by having a cortisol reducing effect, so less stimulus for increasing belly fat and higher stimulus for gaining muscle. Premenopause oestrogen & progesterone work together to keep systemic inflammation balanced and in check. That balance shifts during perimenopause which can mean much higher levels of systemic inflammation resulting in sore joints, impaired gut performance, fluid retention and increased likelihood of anaemia. HIIT triggers an anti-inflammatory response helping to control these impacts and improve general health and recovery. How do I not get injured? HIIT is extremely effective, but it can place a tremendous amount of stress on the body. Therefore, it should only be performed two to three times a week with at least 48 hours between exercise sessions to allow a full replenishment of energy stores and to repair of involved muscle tissue. It is still possible to exercise the day after a HIIT session, but it should be a low- to moderate-intensity activity and use different muscle groups or movement patterns than those used in the high-intensity workout. Minimize the injury risks by adequately preparing, staying hydrated, warming up, and cooling down. Start with really short sessions and allow your body to get used to the workout. Low impact high intensity workouts such as on a spin bike may also be a good starting point. Different workout ideas? Tabata (20s on, 10s off), double tabatas (40s on, 20s off) or half & half (30s on, 30s off) are all great time intervals. Repeat 6-10 times then recover for 3-5mins with a super easy activity. Work for up to three sets. HIIT exercises include full body exercises such as planks, mountain climbers, squats & lunges and can be done with body weight or light weights (maces/kettlebells) or resistance bands. Hill repeats are incredibly effective and not as hard on the body as doing speed work on the flat. Short hard effort intervals on the spin bike are also highly effective and are low impact. So many ideas and options!

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