Aging and Fitness
By Sarah Seads, BA Kinesiology
Aging is part of life.
We cannot stop our chronological age from progressing year after year. We can, however, slow down the speed of our biological aging through changes to our lifestyle including physical fitness. Working in fitness and health for close to 20 years, I have seen 80 year old’s who are as active and fit as 50 year old’s. I have also seen far too many 50 year old’s acting as if they are 80+ and giving into the negative idea of 'being too old for___' .
“You are only old once age becomes your excuse” is a fantastic quote from endurance coach and 70 year old athlete Joe Friel. You are only as old as you think and act and you have the power to slow down the aging process and maintain your health and fitness well into your 80's.
Research has always shown that physical activity can not only slow down the biological aging process, but that it can actually improve our fitness well into our 70's and 80's and beyond. The body is an amazing machine that responds to specific and progressive training stimulus by rebuilding stronger - at any age.
Of course, we all undergo biological changes as we age. Over time, changes to our hormone production and cellular processes do occur and the result is a gradual loss of muscle mass, decreased bone density and loss of elasticity in the tissues. This will, overtime, lead to functional changes such as loss of speed, endurance, strength, balance and agility. However, the rate and severity of these changes are extremely varied from person to person. Our lifestyle choices, training regimes and genetics all play a role in this process.
Many researchers have come to conclusion that the major contributor to the decline in fitness and functional abilities is not really age, but rather lifestyle, especially a reduction in strenuous activity. They believe the physiology-lifestyle balance is around 30-70. In other words, 70% of our lowered performance may be explained by changes in lifestyle (training) with the changes due to aging accounting for only 30%. That should make you very excited! You have 70% control over the changes occurring to your fitness!
Regular exercise has been shown to result in many significant physiological benefits that can keep us younger longer, at any age.
Regulated blood glucose levels
Improved hormone production
Improved stamina through aerobic endurance
Improved strength through muscle building exercise
Improved flexibility through mobility exercise
Improved balance, co-ordination, agility and re-action time.
Improved weight and blood lipid management
Decreased blood pressure
Improved pulmonary/lung function
Increased functional abilities and independence later in life
Any activity is always better than no activity! Speak with your physician before you begin a new exercise program to ensure you are working within safe parameters.
If you are new to exercise begin slowly, building your stamina and strength gradually. You will see improvements in all of the areas that you train no matter what age you start at. An example of a well rounded beginner fitness program is:
Cardiovascular exercise: 3 days per week to strengthen your heart and lungs and improve your general conditioning. Begin with 15 minutes and work up to 60 minutes over a period of months. Swimming, walking and cycling are all great cardiovascular activities. Gradually build up to 4-5 days per week.
Muscular Strength exercise: 2-3 days per week to strengthen your muscles and improve your joint and bone health. Pick 4-8 exercises that work the major muscles of the body and complete 2 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Aim for perfect form first, followed by endurance then strength.
Flexibility exercise: 5-7 days per week gently lengthening the muscles of the body. Stretching and yoga are great ways to improve your flexibility.
Balance exercise: Everyday. Start by standing on one foot and work up to one minute. Progress to closing your eyes while you balance.
Research has shown that some forms of exercise are more effective than others at slowing the functional changes that occur with age. Specifically, more intense activities have been shown to have the most benefit. However, as we age we tend to move towards lower intensity, easier activities and away from high intensity challenges.
Higher intensity training results in significant improvements including:
- Increased aerobic capacity
Increased hormone production of testosterone, estrogen and growth hormone. These hormones are necessary for muscle and tissue building and repair (which occurs when we sleep so get your zzzz's).
It is very important to work up to more intense activities as they do increase the risk of injury if not performed correctly or with adequate experience. Once you have developed your general endurance, strength and flexibility you can progress to incorporating the following:
Cardiovascular intervals: 1-2 days per week add interval training to your cardio workouts. Warm up for at least 15-20 minutes before attempting high intensity training. Aging athletes tend to require additional warm up and cool down time to prepare and avoid injury. Complete 4 rounds of 3 minutes of high intensity work followed by 3 minutes of active recovery. Finish with a long cool down to ensure recovery.
Strength training: 2-3 days of higher intensity, lower repetition exercises for the major muscle groups will stimulate the greatest changes in muscle and bones. Aim for 8-12 repetitions (to muscle fatigue) of 2-4 sets of strength exercises.
The saying, “We are only as old as we feel” really does sum it up. We can choose to age quickly on the couch or we can choose to age more slowly and actively with strength and vitality. Don't forget: 'You aren't old until age becomes your excuse”.
Cotton RT, Ekeroth CJ, Yancy H. 1998. Exercise for older adults. American Council on Exercise.
Friel J, September 22, 2013. Aging: What's behind the decline. www.joefrielsblog.com.
Sarah Seads is a Kinesiologist and Fitness Trainer based in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Her company Equilibrium Lifestyle Management, or ELM, offers group 'Fitness Adventures' and Personalized Training programs to assist clients in reaching for their fitness dreams and goals.