Exercise may boost your health on a cellular level and help keep you young, according to a new study published in the journal Cell Metabolism. These benefits were greatest among 65-to-80-year-olds engaged in a particular kind of exercise: high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—a workout in which short bursts of extremely vigorous exercise alternate with longer stretches of moderate physical activity. It can be done with any type of aerobic activity, including jogging, fast walking, swimming, and cycling.

The most surprising results of the study, according to Sreekumaran Nair, M.D. a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and one of the study authors, was how HIIT seemed to boost the production of new proteins that help improve the function of muscle cells—something that usually declines with age.

Here’s what you need to know about high-intensity interval training and how to try it out yourself.

The Benefits of Interval Training

Substituting some of your steady, moderate-pace aerobic workouts with HIIT can produce several positive metabolic changes related to better health. Earlier research has shown that interval training can improve your HDL (good) cholesterol and body composition (less fat, more muscle), and increase your metabolism and aerobic capacity.

“Some studies have also reported improved adherence and greater motivation to stick with it as compared to traditional exercise programs,” says Yuri Feito, Ph.D., MPH, associate professor of exercise science, Wellstar College of Health & Human Services, Kennesaw State University. The fast pace helps keep workouts interesting, and shorter—since you’re going faster and harder, you can cut your workout time by about 20 percent.

While the new study is small and preliminary, it adds to the growing body of evidence in favor of HIIT to improve overall health and fitness, and calls special attention to how it can benefit older adults even more than their younger, fitter counterparts. “This study supports the use of HIIT among older individuals, which ultimately will affect quality of life,” says Feito. “Improving and maintaining muscle mass has been shown to be a key factor for longevity.” 

How to Try Out Interval Training

The idea of high-intensity training can sound intimidating—like something only athletes and other young, super-fit people should try. But the HIIT concept can be adapted to suit anyone, regardless of age or fitness level. “The term ‘high intensity’ is relative to each person,” says Feito.

Think of your exercise intensity on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being just this side of sitting on the couch, 10 being a full-out sprint). As a general rule, your high-intensity bursts should be done at what feels like a 7 or 8 on that scale. At that intensity, you should feel short of breath and unable to carry on a conversation. The recovery period—those longer stretches of moderate activity—should feel like an intensity of about 4 to 5.

Whatever your activity—cycling, walking on a treadmill, etc.—you should start with a few minutes of gradual warm up. Alternate 30-second to 1-minute bursts of intense exercise with 2 to 3 minutes of slower-paced recovery time. Even 20 minutes of that should leave you feeling like you’ve gotten a solid workout. End with a few minutes to cool down.

“What is most interesting about HIIT is that we see significant improvements with significantly shorter periods of exercise,” says Feito. “And that makes it very appealing for our busy lifestyles.”