Strong woman doing push ups.

Short on Time? Try a HIIT Workout

By Erica Patino
Reviewed by Daniel Lew, M.D.
December 18, 2023

Feel like you’re too busy to exercise, or too out of shape to start? Think again. Staying active is important at any age, but once you hit 40, starting a new exercise routine may actually increase longevity. And adding high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to your exercise routine can be an efficient way to reap those benefits.

What Is HIIT?

High-intensity interval training, or HIIT for short, is a popular form of exercise. It’s known for being high-impact, of course, but in short spurts.

“When people say ‘high-intensity interval training,’ what they're referring to is a mix of anaerobic and aerobic work,” says Dani Singer, a certified personal trainer in Howard County, Maryland. “Anaerobic is strength training, and then aerobic is cardio.”

This mix is performed in a cycle, where you do high-intensity cardio—about 80% to 90% of your maximum heart rate—for a short period of time, and then you recover at a low-to-moderate intensity for a period. The cycle is repeated until the exercise session is over, generally in 30 minutes or less.

For example, you might jump rope or do jumping jacks followed by a lower-intensity cooldown, like walking or a bit of yoga. These bursts of challenging exercise, followed by lower-impact movement, have many benefits for the body, including weight loss, improved cardiorespiratory fitness, and overall strength and balance. In fact, HIIT has been shown to be more beneficial than other forms of exercise.

HIIT also has the ability to raise metabolism and improve body composition. “HIIT was originally popular because it burns more calories for weight loss,” Singer says. “Now, we see it does so much else, as well, because it helps your mobility.”

Why Exercise Matters in Midlife

"Physical activity is important for a woman during midlife to help stay healthy and strong," says Natasha Trentacosta, M.D., a board-certified sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. Studies have shown that any physical activity is helpful for postmenopausal women, but HIIT may be more beneficial in reducing fat compared to other forms of exercise.

Weight-bearing activities are any activities done on your feet with your body as weight. Think walking, stair climbing, dancing, and running. These are especially useful because they can help prevent or reduce bone and muscle loss, Trentacosta says. Both are major risks in midlife because of changing hormones, which can lead to falls and hip fractures.

She also recommends core and balance exercises, which can also help reduce the risk of falls as women get older. These may include any activities (such as yoga) in which you balance on one leg for a period of time or use a balance ball while you do situps, which works both the core and challenges the balance.

Exercise also helps decrease pain in people with arthritis and can be beneficial for mental health, decreasing anxiety and depression, and improving mood, Trentacosta says.

How to Get Started with HIIT After 40

One of the best things about HIIT is that it can be adapted for all fitness levels. And the concept can be applied to a variety of aerobic exercises, including walking, running, cycling, swimming, elliptical workouts, water aerobics, and group exercise classes, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. That means you can do it with your favorite form of cardio, or with a form you’re curious to try.

6 Tips for Safely Starting HIIT in Midlife

1. Check in with your doctor first. Ask your doctor if HIIT is right for you before you try it. “You always want to get a checkup by your physician, especially if you haven't been working out in a while, to make sure that you're healthy enough to do such kinds of activities,” Trentacosta says. “Because you're going to be pushing yourself to the limit during those intense cycles.”

2. Start slowly at first. Although the idea is to challenge yourself, you don’t want to start too vigorously at the beginning, as this can cause you to burn out or get injured. During the high-intensity periods, you should still be able to talk and not be gasping for breath. “You need to work at a pace where you're exerting energy but where you're not in a very uncomfortable situation,” Trentacosta says.

3. Buy and wear a heart rate tracking device. “HIIT is only as effective as you are able to move into and out of the target heart rate zones,” says Erin Mahoney, a certified personal trainer, author, and founder of EMAC Certifications based in Scottsdale, Arizona. “A heart rate monitor or smart watch can make this more effective.”

Again, the goal heart rate is around 80%–90% of the maximum heart rate. In the beginning of your workout or when first starting HIIT, a lower goal heart rate is recommended as you get warmed up, and then you can work your way up.

4. Start with shorter HIIT sessions. You can only do this type of workout for so long—especially if you're new to it. Start with as little as 15 to 20 minutes total and then work your way up to longer workouts.

5. Time and track your intervals. “You should start with a 1-to-3 work-to-recovery interval,” Mahoney says. “This means that for every one minute of high intensity, you recover at a moderate intensity for three minutes.”

However, you don't have to start at a full one minute; you can begin with a 30-second work interval and a 90-second recovery. As you get stronger and are able to recover faster, you reduce the recovery time gradually. Eventually, the work-to-rest ratio can go to an equal 1-to-1.

6. Use sparingly. To do HIIT right, you need days in between workouts while the body recovers and repairs itself. Try to do HIIT no more than three times a week. In between, you can do moderate-intensity, steady cardio.

Sample HIIT Workouts for Women over 40

Once you’ve been cleared by your doctor, consider trying one of these HIIT workouts for beginners 40 or over:

1. Power walking and walking. If you haven’t worked out in a while, power walking may be a good place to start, Trentacosta says. Try doing a brisk power walk for 30 seconds, followed by 90 seconds of walking, alternating between cycles for 20 minutes.

2. Jogging and faster jogging. If you’re ready to move beyond walking and running is your ultimate goal, you can alternate between faster and slower jogging for the same intervals: 30 seconds of faster jogging, followed by 90 seconds of slower jogging, for 20 minutes total. This can be done on a treadmill or outdoors.

3. A combination of moves. If you'd like to challenge yourself more, Singer suggests following the 10-minute HIIT workout he created: 30 seconds of jumping jacks, 30 seconds of plank, 30 seconds of pushups, and 30 seconds of squats, followed by 30 seconds of recovery. Repeat the cycle four times for a total of 10 minutes.

Bottom Line

HIIT can be a good way to add variety to your workouts, challenge your body, and feel your best—without taking a lot of time. And it just may be the jump-start you need to add exercise to your busy routine.

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