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Turn back your aging clock with high-intensity workouts

Recent research finds exercise program can stimulate mitochondria, the energy producing proteins


If you’ve ever wondered how to maximize your time at the gym or how to get in an effective workout, consider the remarkable effects high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has on the aging process.

Assistant Professor Matt Robinson was recently involved in a study to determine which type of exercise is most effective for removing damaged proteins from the body and regenerating new ones.

“One of the theories of aging is that the muscle proteins accumulate damage, in the same way that rust accumulates on cars,” Matt says. “Those damaged proteins need to be replaced, so we need to remove them and make new ones. Exercise is a really good way to do that. We compared three different exercise programs to see how they change proteins and which specific types of proteins are affected.”

Matt and his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic recruited participants in two different age groups – 18-30 years of age and 65-80 years of age. The groups participated in three types of exercise – HIIT, resistance weight-training and a combination of lower-intensity cardio and resistance training. The study found that HIIT has the greatest impact on proteins within the mitochondria, which were among thousands of muscle proteins that were examined.  In particular, they found large increases in the cellular machinery, the ribosomes, that make new proteins and increases in the rate at which new proteins were being made.

The mitochondria are primarily responsible for generating energy for cells to function. These proteins are also related to a person’s overall fitness. Aerobic capacity, also called VO2 max, is one of the best indicators of health as we get older. As a person’s VO2 max declines, their mitochondria also go down.

Researchers looked at the whole body functioning of participants, including their VO2 max, strength and muscle mass. They also took blood and muscle samples to look at molecular changes. The study found that after doing HIIT, mitochondria function in the older participants was the same as the younger participants at baseline. Although VO2 max was still lower in the older participants, limiting aerobic capacity, they were still able to stimulate the mitochondria.

“The more mitochondria a person has, the better,” Matt says. “Aerobic fitness is an important consideration for younger people and athletes because it’s a marker of how big their gas tank is and how far they can push themselves. As we get older, aerobic fitness declines and we’re less concerned about total performance because we don’t need to go out and win the Olympics. What helps though, is being able to get out of bed each day because as capacity declines, problems arise.”

Matt recommends people incorporate some type of HIIT into their regular exercise routines. He says that some of the most positive responses researchers saw were in participants doing the HIIT rather than the moderate intensity workouts. It also helped non-exercise responders become exercise responders.

“If you’re not meeting the exercise goals you set for yourself, look at your intensity,” he says. “Plateaus happen, and in our study we re-evaluated everyone at six weeks and adjusted their goals to keep them progressing.”

Here at OSU, Matt is now shifting the focus of his research from a healthy aging population to a pre-diabetic one. He, along with Assistant Professor Sean Newsom, are currently recruiting participants for a research study that will look at how exercise may improve the health of pre-diabetics and whether there are different considerations for these individuals.

“Exercise is our best tool to improve a person’s health throughout multiple disease stages,” Matt says. “Whether you have diabetes or are at-risk for certain conditions, it’s never too late. What we’re trying to understanding better is what it is specifically about exercise that makes it so beneficial and the most powerful intervention for improving health.”

Ready to HIIT it?

Consider working up to this sample routine, which was used in Matt’s research. Matt says it takes a couple of weeks to warm up to this type of exercise and that it’s important to get used to it before starting a regular program.

HIIT Workout
Warm-up: 10 minutes
1st HIIT interval: 4 minutes
Rest: 3 minutes
2nd HIIT interval: 4 minutes
Rest: 3 minutes
3rd HIIT interval: 4 minutes
Rest: 3 minutes
4th HIIT interval: 4 minutes
Cool down: 5 minutes
Total workout time: 40 minutes

Examples of activities you could use for a HIIT workout:

  • Road or stationary bike
  • Walking path or treadmill
  • Elliptical machine
  • Hills
  • Stairs
  • Lap swimming
  • Jump rope
  • Any activity you can do in short bursts to elevate your heart rate