On Fitness: Training for the Ages

10.23.2010 | by:

Come hell or high water, I know a workout is having it’s intended effect once those around me begin discussing how old they are.

But upon hearing statements like “But I am 50, do you really think I should be doing pushups?” during fitness classes, I point at my 62 year old Mom knocking them out on the floor. Next please.

Though this may seem a tad harsh, the true moniker for fighting aging tool and nail is “move it or lose it”. In order to appreciate this concept, it is important to understand what happens to our bodies as we age:

• Loss of bone density
• Body fat increases
• Hormone levels drop
• Energy declines

The primary contributor to all of the above can be labeled “aging”, but it also bears a striking resemblance to inactivity. Abundant scientific evidence in the past 50 years has demonstrated the specific damage done to each of the body’s organ systems by inactivity. Both aging and inactivity lead to strikingly similar kinds of deterioration.
One of the most interesting examples of this comes via studies involving the effects of space travel on astronauts. In the weightloss environment of zero gravity, astronauts lose up to 22% of bone density after a month in outer space.

Researchers studying aging compare this to the effect of a decade or more of similar inactivity back on earth– leading them to coin the phrase “use it or lose it” in regard to physical health.

With this in mind, one of the most important things I can teach any client is that age is no barrier to performance. You can still do all of the things at 65 that you did at 25 (whether you want to is another matter), the main factor in this equation is what we do to recover.

The Aging Equation:

In looking at aging, the daily stress we place on our bodies is the most crucial factor in how our bodies change. And this process is not dissimilar to what happens in the gym.

Strength training works by first breaking down our existing muscles to re-build a stronger version to protect against stress. If this stimulus is too much or done too often however, the body will succumb to injury.

In this same way, the stress we put on our bodies on a daily basis—from the food we eat, to the people and situations we surround ourselves with—provides a similar global effect to both our muscles and nervous system.

For someone in a chronically stressful job, this may take the form of tension in the upper back and shoulders due to poor breathing patterns. If these muscles are forced to contract for hours, days or months at a time, they will eventually spasm and become injured. This is the true process of how much “aging” occurs.

In order to better understand whether you are currently succumbing to this form of overload, our video of the week features a simple stress test.

Taking a load off:

Beyond working out, what I encourage all of my clients to do every 3-4 weeks is take a “de-load” week in which we emphasize stretching/mobility, put down the heavy weight and minimize or eliminate stressful elements outside of the gym.

The human body is remarkably resilient and by simply allowing it some time to breath (and practicing deep breathing is a good idea), we return to work or exercise feeling refreshed and renewed.

With this in mind, this process can also be supported by simple activities we perform daily to help to minimize global stress.

Some guidelines for each include:

De-load week suggestions:
• Identify and minimize/eliminate stressful situations and individuals (take a few days off work, sleep in late for once)
• Surround yourself with new and positive experiences (take a class, visit old friends, listen to uplifting music)
• Perform full body mobility/stretch routine 2-3 times during the week
• Reduce intensity and volume of exercise in the gym by 30-40%

Daily de-load suggestions:
• Stretch/mobilize area of need on a daily basis
• Practice deep breathing
• Do something active

Age Appropriate Fitness:

After establishing the importance of exercise in combating the aging process, it is fairly clear that we all need to get stronger, faster, more mobile and aerobically fit.

So why should we sit down at machines or waste time with calf raises as we age? Given that inactivity is the key ingredient we are fighting, the way I train a 25 year old versus a 75 year old is remarkably similar:

Power training (Speed)- Medicine ball throws, jumping, Olympic lifts, sprinting
Strength Training (Strength)- Bench pressing, push ups, chin ups, dips, squats, lunges, step ups, deadlifts.
Conditioning (Fitness)- Aerobic circuit training, intervals, complexes

With a few exceptions for specific limitations, the above exercises provide a universal template for training for a lifetime. But while training remains similar, the element of changes is recovery.

Because our muscles take longer to rebuild as we age, how often and how long we train generally cuts down after the age of forty. For example, while a twenty five year old may be able to get away with full body workouts four times per week, this would likely cripple our 75 year old.

In my experience training individuals over the age of forty, I have adopted the following recommendations for optimal fitness:

Strength Training:
• One day of heavy resistance training per week (6-8 reps/80-90% of maximum strength)
• Two days of bodyweight only strength training with higher reps to build muscular endurance.
• Focus on single leg exercises (step lunges, split squats, single leg squats) versus double leg squatting or deadlifting
• Limit each workout to 30-45 minutes

Cardiovascular Training:
• 1-2 days of anaerobic interval type training
• 30-40 minutes of daily aerobic exercise (walking, bike riding, team activities, etc)

Creative Commons License index photo credit: Hygiene Matters