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Researchers have long believed that high-intensity training is the most effective way to increase maximum oxygen uptake. Now, it turns out that the total amount of exercise is what matters.

Older adults can exercise at a lower intensity and achieve the same positive results

Less intense exercise is equally beneficial for older adults, according to a new study.

Do you prefer to train intensively, but for shorter periods, or would you rather take it easier and train for longer? It turns out that you have greater freedom of choice than we previously thought, at least if you are over 60 years old and your goal is to improve your physical fitness.

“Both forms of exercise are effective and produce good results for older people if done systematically and over time,” Sindre Herskedal Fosstveit says. 

He is a researcher at the University of Agder, and has analysed 23 different studies involving over 1,300 participants. 

What he found was surprising.

“In the past, we believed high-intensity training was the most effective way to increase maximum oxygen uptake. But it turns out that the differences between this and training with moderate intensity are smaller than previously assumed,” he says.

In fact, there does not seem to be any significant difference between the two forms of exercise when we take into account the total amount of training.

A measure of good fitness

Here, we need to take a moment to talk about why maximum oxygen uptake is so important – and what moderate and high-intensity exercise is.

Maximum oxygen uptake in itself is simply a measure of how much oxygen the body can absorb from the lungs and deliver to our muscles. But it is also connected to our health in various ways. A low maximal oxygen uptake is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.

Sindre Herskedal Fosstveit at the University of Agder's Department of Sport Science and Physical Education.

“As we get older, our physical fitness deteriorates, and that is reflected in the maximum oxygen uptake. But exercise helps and can counteract the downward trend. Older people can actually achieve the same percentage change as younger people if they exercise,” says Fosstveit.

When we exercise at moderate intensity, we have a heart rate of between 65 and 80 per cent of maximum heart rate. You can speak in short sentences if you’re running with someone, but maintaining a conversation is challenging.

High-intensity training is when you exercise at 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate or higher. Then it becomes difficult to speak at all.

Running, cycling, and dancing

What Fosstveit has done is a meta-study. This means that he has analysed results from previous studies. In these cases, the focus was on endurance training, and the studies involved older people engaged in everything from cycling and running to dancing.

What is new is that he had strict criteria for which studies were included. The studies all had to report the achieved frequency, intensity, and duration of the recorded training sessions.

“Many studies only mention what the training programme contains, and that the participants complete such and such a percentage. But that percentage is often just based on attendance, not on what they’ve actually done,” he says.

For a study to be included in Fosstveit's results, it had to report the intensity at which the participants were exercising.

In addition, the selection criteria made it possible to calculate the total training volume in each study. How often, how long, and how hard you train is in fact important.

“Previous meta-analyses that have been carried out without these strict criteria have indicated that high-intensity training is significantly better for increasing maximum oxygen uptake. What we see here is that there is not as big a difference as previously thought,” says Fosstveit. 


Fosstveit et al. The intensity paradox: A systematic review and meta-analysis of its impact on the cardiorespiratory fitness of older adultsScandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, vol. 34, 2024. DOI: 10.1111/sms.14573


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