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Can Aging Adults Engage in Aquatic-Based HIIT? You Bet!

Can Aging Adults Engage in Aquatic-Based HIIT? You Bet!

HIIT stands for “high intensity interval training”, and it’s a proven way to blast away fat, improve metabolic rates, increase endurance, build speed and much more.

Traditionally, HIIT is associated with land-based programs for athletes. But as Jackie Halbin, Living Well Manager, Lakeview Village in Lenexa, Kansas, knows, it has tremendous applicability in the water, too.

Halbin works mainly with seniors, but that doesn’t mean she offers them light aerobic classes that can barely get their heart rates up. In fact, she has a cadre of clientele who want to push themselves and aren’t satisfied unless they are putting their bodies to the test on a regular basis. To make sure she listens and responds to their needs, she regularly engages some of her population in aquatics HIIT circuit training. It’s a high-powered, fast-driven way to get them the results they want in a safer environment, especially if they have difficulty due to aging muscles, bones and other medical issues.

Water Plays a Powerful Role in HIIT Circuit Training

Through an ICAA webinar, sponsored by HydroWorx and entitled “Discover the Benefits of a HIIT Aquatic Circuit”, Halbin freely shared her secrets to turning her facility’s therapy pool into a place where truly active aging can take place!

In terms of the history of HIIT, it’s been well-known among the elite fitness pros since the 1990s when its popularity arose in Finland among long-distance runners. Since that time, it’s gone more mainstream. Many American fitness locations and gyms offer HIIT training and all its promises of ratcheted cardio, strength and metabolic benefits.

Researchers have noticed this focus on HIIT, too, and they’ve done several studies that concluded:

  • HIIT increases the VO2 max
  • Bone density improves with proper HIIT, which can be a boon to older adults
  • After finishing HIIT exercises, the metabolic rate increases for as much as 24 hours. This helps burn calories, which is a benefit for people who are trying to lose weight

It’s exciting… there’s no doubt. But why bother with HIIT exercises as part of an aquatic program? Learn more below!

Is HIIT Safe for Older Adults?

Many think older adults shouldn’t raise their heart rates too much, but this is not the case. If they’ve got a doctor’s approval, they can engage in HIIT workouts that boost their heart rate. Additionally, there are no increased risks of developing muscular or joint injuries. 

The Benefits of HIIT for Aging Adults

You may think HIIT pool workouts are too intense for older adults, but they offer a long list of benefits, such as the following:

Full-Body Workout

Water-based exercises involve the whole body and work more muscles than land-based workouts do. While doing the HIIT exercises, older adults maintain their balance by using other muscles.

Recovery Workout

Aquatic therapy is a form of recovery for patients with chronic pain or sports injuries. Older adults may be reluctant to try HIIT aquatic workouts due to joint pains or other ailments, but water offers a safe environment to work out and recover.

Improved Flexibility and Mobility

Besides getting their heart rate up and building core strength, aquatic HIIT exercises encourage older adults to work on their balance and flexibility. Best of all, patients do this in a low-risk environment, so if they lose balance while working out, they don’t have to worry about landing on a hard surface.

Strengthened Cardiovascular Activity

Aquatic HIIT workouts increase cardiovascular activity, resulting in a higher peak oxygen consumption and reduced risk of developing heart disease. Cardiovascular exercises also help individuals stay fit and keep belly fat off.

Benefits of aquatic HIIT for HydroWorx

In Halbin’s experience, she found that seniors were wanting more from their workouts. Water walking and exercise classes were fine, but they craved focused cardio. Some didn’t bother to come to Halbin’s pool at all, because they bought into the myths and preconceived notions that therapy pools were places where no one worked out hard. She set out to educate them on the value of water’s natural properties, like resistance and drag! At the same time, she made sure not to scare anyone who was waffling about HIIT due to ideas that the only people who could do this kind of exercise were toned, young and fit.

HIIT in a therapy pool with an underwater treadmill floor and resistance jets can be just as intense, exciting and challenging as any land-based regimen. Halbin set out to design HIIT opportunities for a wide range of exercisers, including:

  • People who wanted something they could do on their own. She even made up laminated HIIT exercise routines that could be used in the pool for self-motivated clients.
  • People who didn’t have a lot of time to exercise and didn’t feel like skimping on intensity.
  • People who like to be driven and coached by someone from the sidelines.
  • People who like the challenge and friendly competition of exercising in a group format.

At the end of the day, of course, she wanted to make sure her routines met or exceeded the guidelines recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). These guidelines encourage moderate aerobic exercise 30 minutes/day about 5x/week, as well as vigorous aerobic exercise 20 minutes/day approximately 3x/week. Plus, she recognizes that her HIIT training needed to include 8-10 strength exercises with 10-15 reps, balance exercises for those who could be fall risks and flexibility exercises. It was a tall order, but she knew she had the motivation… and the equipment.

HIIT Equipment for a High-Energy Boomer Generation

What does Halbin recommend to entice Boomers who want the intense, hardworking feeling that comes from HIIT, while recognizing the limitations of physical maladies? The needs are actually pretty simple.

The first necessity is a pool, of course. Halbin has a HydroWorx therapy pool with a deep well. This allows her to have her clients exercise in a variety of positions and with different water depths. When she wants to encourage them to go harder, she can turn on the resistance jets, or add an underwater treadmill to the mix.

A timer is also needed for HIIT training. Because the circuits are time-driven, it’s best to have a stopwatch or a waterproof timer. There are plenty on the market, and they keep everyone moving.

As for exercise accessories, Halbin’s tried tons of them and incorporates them whenever necessary. Styrofoam dumbbells, noodles, kickboards, bands and aquatic steps are just some of her favorites. However, she’s quick to note that you don’t need equipment to get a HIIT pool class started. It’s just nice to have it to mix up the workouts and routines.

Aging Adults and Aquatic HIIT: Routines for Active Exercisers

For first-time enthusiasts, a HIIT aqua circuit workout might be a bit of a surprise. Typically, the repetitions and time intervals are going to allow for a longer recovery time. As exercisers become more adept at their routines, those recovery times can be shortened. In essence, the intense exercise needs to be a true challenge, and the recovery should last just long enough to get a break… but not fully recover to the point of a baseline heart rate.

Before any aquatic workout, it’s essential to make sure that all recreational athletes, regardless of age or presumed ability, have been cleared for “take off”. Cardiac patients may not be suitable for some HIIT regimens, for example. This is why it’s important to get to know all clientele before putting them into an aqua circuit.

As far as the actual workout goes, Halbin divides her sessions creatively between blocks, rounds and other intervals. She even provides partner options when two exercisers are working out together. She likes to mix up the experience and always pushes her exercisers to take water breaks. Most people forget that they need proper hydration, even when they are working out in a therapy pool!

Halbin HIIT Routine

An example of a typical Halbin HIIT routine is as follows:

Round One

Interval: Jumping Jacks – 20-30 seconds

Strength/Recovery: Bicep Curls – 20-30 seconds

Round Two

Interval: Jack Tucks – 20-30 seconds

Strength/Recovery: Bicep Curls w/Hamstring Curls – 20-30 seconds

Round Three

Interval: Jack Tucks, Suspended – 20-30 seconds

Strength/Recovery: Bicep Curls w/Hamstring Curls – 20-30 seconds

Exercisers can either stick with doing only constant intervals of Round One exercises or they can move through the Rounds as a rotation. Regardless, each block of rounds should last in total about 10 minutes, which is definitely enough to make any exerciser feel the proverbial burn… in a very good, challenged way!

Fun HIIT Facts, Figures and Q&As

As Halbin has moved forward with HIIT at her facility, she’s discovered that both men and women are enjoying this program. At this point, though, men seem to gravitate toward it a little more, possibly because some are still working and need a fast way to get in intense exercise each day.

Aquatic HIIT Testimonials

A few of her clients have given testimonials about the HIIT aquatic circuit, and they provide great insight into the advantages of the program:

  • “I did not realize I could get such a good workout in the water. I can really feel it and it is a good feeling.” – Gary
  • “I needed a boost and a change to my regular routine and interval training did that.” – Vicki
  • “My doctor told me I needed more cardiovascular work in my exercise plan with a little more intensity than just walking, so I tried this and it has really helped me out. I can work hard and feel good at the same time.” – Richard

At the end of the day, HIIT in the therapy pool gets people working out a little harder without forcing land-based impacts on their bodies. It’s a short workout with tremendous benefits and provides a change from standard workouts. It also empowers clients/residents to stay in control and challenge themselves.

Aquatic HIIT FAQs

What age group is best for HIIT training? What functional levels are good fits?

Anyone can do HIIT training. That’s the beautiful thing about the water. Even someone who is maybe not a super athlete can still do a HIIT workout. They just have to exercise a little faster. It’s more about functional level than age. We have someone 67 doing it, and someone 95 doing it.

What’s some additional aquatic HIIT training that your facility recommends?

We add more and more stuff all the time. There are tons of equipment additions, including trampolines, treadmills, bikes and beach balls. You can add just about anything in the pull that will create drag or resistance… it’s limitless! And if you have a HydroWorx pool, you have all the options those pools offer.

How can a facility promote an aquatics HIIT training program?

First, we promoted our HITT circuit through the organization’s newsletter. Originally, we started with promotions and had an instructor two times per week run the class, but only the first weekend of the month. Now, we have an instructor every Tuesday and Thursday at 10 a.m. Plus, we have the laminated HIIT workout “cheat sheets” in a basket so people can work out on their own.

How long is the HIIT recovery period?

It can vary. At first, the recovery time might be longer. You want clients to catch their breath and feel like they’re ready to go again. It’s going to be challenging, it’s going to be hard. The goal is that they’re going to be able to balance between the intervals and recovery periods. As they get in better shape, the recovery is less and less. Someone in really good shape can do 40 seconds of an interval, and then 30 seconds of recovery.

How would you use music in terms of taking/operating a HIIT class?

Music creates an energy in the class. It makes people want to move and feel good. There is a lot of power music and muscle music. Some music is meant for HIIT, and it can intrinsically allude to take-offs versus recovery.

How do you promote getting into the water in general for older adults?

Many people don’t want to get in the pool, or get their hair wet. We try to be as accommodating as possible. Temperature-wise, we keep our therapy pool at 86-88 degrees. Also, we try to keep locker rooms at a good temp. We do as much education as we can on how to buy swimsuits that zip, where to get swim gear, etc. We offer tips whenever we can.

When you’re instructing with the intervals, how do you do the high intensity? Are the participants told to work?

We use a scale of 0-10. Ten is the max; we want a 7-8 range. If you just say, “I want you working 80-90 percent of your max,” people don’t understand. You have to put it in perspective, make it relevant to daily life, rather than about heart rates. 

HIIT for Older Adults With HydroWorx Pools

Here at HydroWorx, we provide aquatic wellness pools with built-in treadmills suitable for injury recovery and HIIT workouts for older adults. We support healthy lifestyles and offer products that help older adults increase their cardiovascular fitness. Contact us today to learn more about our aquatic wellness pools!


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