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Stronger Seniors® Chair HIIT

Posted by and on May 6, 2016

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is all the rage, but is it appropriate at any age? This IAFC 2016 session will explain the benefits and drawbacks of HIIT training and the importance of evaluating modifications for older adults.


  • Insulin response (increased insulin sensitivity, decreased fasting insulin)
  • Cardiovascular health, including increased aerobic and anaerobic capacity
  • Possibly reduced abdominal visceral fat
  • Increased growth hormone
  • Reduced training time – quick, intense workouts require less time
  • Reduced exercise boredom – fun format


  • High impact activities may be contraindicated for some orthopedic considerations
  • High intensity may lead to exercise/class dropout or be harmful for cardiac concerns
  • Inappropriate speed (too fast) can affect balance, stability and movement control

Keep in mind that these potential drawbacks can be reduced or eliminated with program design and exercise modification. For example, holding the back of a chair during certain exercises may minimize balance issues. Additionally, participants should be encouraged to self-monitor. Each person should evaluate intensity (i.e. using the Borg perceived scale of exertion) and move faster only when he/she feels comfortable and secure.

Heart Rate Formula For Older Adults
Most studies and testing of interval workouts have been conducted with young populations. The maximal heart rate (MHR) formula (220 minus age) was updated for older adults based upon a study from the Mayo Clinic. Published in the American College of Cardiology journal, this study looked at 25,000 people (age range 40-89) who completed stress tests during 1993–2006. The study revealed that while heart rate peaks declined with age, there were also differences between the sexes. Women between 40-89 should expect MHR to be 200 minus 67% of their age; men between 40-89 should expect their MHR to be 216 minus 93% of their age.

In addition to using an adjusted heart rate formula, individuals with specific concerns, such as pace makers, hypertension, arrhythmia, or atrial fibrillation, may require further program modification.

Program Considerations
Consider the following key concepts for HIIT formats:

  • Frequency 1-2 times per week
  • Work intervals typically range between10-60 seconds
  • Recovery time ranges from the same duration as work (1:1 work to recovery ratio) up to twice the duration as work (1:2 work to recovery ratio)
  • Plan for a duration approximately one-half of regular workouts (10-20 minutes)
  • Begin with only 2-5 intervals; build up to 10-15 minutes of work/recovery

To increase intensity for seniors, the exercise needs to be safe and simple. Common ways to increase intensity are increasing range of motion, acceleration, or lever length. Intensity can also be increased with small “pulses” in a reduced range of motion; for example, a squat sustained at the halfway mark, then lowering and lifting only 2 inches.

Movements can be rehearsed at a lower intensity to ensure better coordination at a higher speed or larger range of motion. Carlos Rosas, co-founder of the Nia Technique, utilizes a specific learning method, “Learn the Move, Move the Move, and Energize the Move”. I find this approach very helpful in breaking down exercises safely and allowing participants to “own” the movement. Learn the Move – intellectually knowing how the step goes, start and end positions, and muscle recruitment. Move the Move – slowly practicing and repeating the exercise. Showing modifications during this phase is a great way to incorporate options for all levels. Energize the Move – the individual enhances the movement with his/her own expressive variations.

Exercise program adherence can be thwarted by boredom and burnout. Important considerations for working with older adults: adding the fun factor, using appropriate safety modifications, and including familiar movements. Music can be a motivator and also help monitor interval segments. Consider great songs from the 30s to the 70s… after all, the Rolling Stones are seniors themselves!

Stronger Seniors Sample HIIT Formula

Warm-up – 5 minutes
Intervals – 6-15 minutes. 30-second burst of high intensity work followed by 30-60 seconds of active recovery
Cool-down & Stretches – 5 minutes

Ideas for Bursts of High Intensity
Tip: Always show alternative seated exercises for those who cannot stand or become tired.

  • IRISH JIG – Hold chair lightly on one Lift knee high, tap toe in front of other foot, lift knee high, and tap foot back to start position; repeat at a quick pace. Progression: Add arm wave.
  • HALF BODY STARBURST – Hold chair lightly on one side. Abduct the opposite side arm and leg out simultaneously, repeat at a quick pace.
  • SKATING – Hold back of chair Step wide side-to-side while performing a hamstring curl with the other leg. Progression: Wide hop side-to-side with hamstring curl.
  • SIT TO STAND ROCKING CHAIR – Ensure that the chair will not slip; place on a yoga mat or against wall. Sit in the middle of the seat, lean forward to stand. Progression: Sit and lean back while lifting feet off the floor (bent knees), place feet on floor, lean forward and stand. Note: always check chair placement by reaching back or touching seat.

Ideas For Active Recovery Phase

  • MARCHING – Move about the
  • WALK AROUND THE CHAIR – Change direction each time to prevent
  • WALTZING -– 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
  • DO THE TWIST! – Dance break, Shake-it-up-baby!

Stronger Seniors Sample HIIT Workout

Time Interval Intensity Level
5 minutes Warm Up 4-6
30 seconds Irish Jig (right) 7-8.5
30 – 60 seconds Marching 4-6
30 seconds Half Body Starburst (right) 7-8.5
30-60 seconds Waltz 4-6
30 seconds Sit to Stand Rocking Chair 7-8.5
30-60 seconds Walk Around the Chair 4-6
30 seconds Skating 7-8.5
30-60 seconds Do the Twist! 4-6
30 seconds Irish Jig (left) 7-8.5
30-60 seconds Marching 4-6
30 seconds Half Body Starburst (left) 7-8.5
30-60 seconds Waltz 4-6
5 minutes Cool-down & Stretches Low

High Intensity Interval Training may be beneficial for the elderly with proper modifications and considerations. Perform this workout only 1-2 times per week, alternating with other enjoyable activities and exercise. Look for more Stronger Seniors Chair HIIT ideas at IAFC 2016!

American Council On Exercise. Fit Facts. High-Intensity Interval Training.

American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM Information On…High-Intensity Interval Training.

Len Kravitz. Metabolic Effects of HIIT.

American College of Cardiology. “Heart responds differently to exercise in men vs. women.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 March 2014.

Nia Technique by Carlos Rosas & Debbie Rosas,


Anne Pringle Burnell has been a featured presenter at national and international conferences including IAFC & ATRI. She is also an education provider for AquaStretch Foundations and Stott Pilates. Anne created the Peyow Aqua Pilates program, and the Stronger Seniors Workout Program. Anne teaches for Northwestern Medicine, Galter Life Center/Swedish Covenant Hospital, Peninsula, UIC, and Stott Pilates™ Certification courses.


Reprinted with permission from the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA)
This article appeared in the April/May 2016 Akwa magazine [Vol. 29 No. 6 Pg. 26]