Healthy Aging – Who doesn’t want to slow the aging process and stay fit for life? You can’t stop the process of aging but through lifestyle changes, you can slow it down. No doubt, you’ve seen vibrant seniors who engage in a physically active lifestyle and even run marathons! But, you’ve probably also known seniors of a similar age who struggle to do the things they enjoy. One of the biggest factors that separate the two is body composition and physical fitness. Yet, there are a variety of aspects of physical fitness and each is important for healthy aging. That’s why we need to address all four. What are these four components of fitness?
Healthy Aging: Stamina
Stamina is the ability to sustain activity for a long period of time. For example, it takes stamina to tackle a long hike or go on a 50-mile bike ride. Stamina also comes into play with the activities you do every day. Do you become winded after 30 minutes of housework or can you clean the kitchen, bathroom, and car before you feel ready to take a break? The tried and true way to build stamina is to increase your aerobic capacity. You do this by engaging in exercise that gets your heart rate up for sustained periods of time, like running and cycling. In response to aerobic exercise, your heart becomes more efficient at pumping blood to your tissues and muscles and the number of energy-producing mitochondria inside your muscle cells increases. More mitochondria mean more ATP production and because you have the ability to produce more ATP, you have greater resistance to fatigue and more stamina.
Doing long periods of aerobic exercise isn’t the only way to boost your stamina and endurance. High-intensity interval training and circuit training can do the same thing. Circuit training builds stamina when you do higher repetitions for the muscle groups you’re working and limit the rest period between exercises. The key is to keep your heart rate up. When you do high repetitions during circuits, you build muscle endurance, which boosts stamina as well.
Healthy Aging: Strength
Preserving strength is essential for staying active as you age. Did you know that by the time you reach the age of 70, you will only have about half the muscle mass you had in your 20s and 30s? Fortunately, resistance training helps preserve muscle tissue as you age. Why is strength so important? Stamina can limit your performance but can so can a loss of strength and muscle mass. Plus, you lose bone mass as you age as well. The combination of loss of muscle, strength, and bone is what leads to frailty in older people.
So, what can you do to preserve muscle and bone? Strength train, of course. For preserving your bones, a heavy resistance is best, at least 70% of your one-rep max. Heavy resistance training may actually stimulate new bone growth rather than just preserve what you have. A study carried out at McMaster University found that 12 months of strength training increased bone density in the spine by 9% in post-menopausal women.
Another way that building muscle helps with aging is the impact muscle tissue has on metabolic health. Not only does having more muscle boost your resting metabolic rate, but it also improves insulin sensitivity, how readily your cells take up glucose. Diabetics have an easier time regulating their blood sugars when they resistance train and there’s some evidence that resistance training helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, one of the most common diseases of aging.
Healthy Aging: Power
We talk about the importance of staying strong and preserving muscle tissue but we need to hang on to our power capabilities as well. Power adds time to the strength equation. You might be strong enough to lift a weight slowly but can you move it through space at lightning speed? If so, you’re powerful as power takes into account strength AND speed. Think explosive strength!
Power capabilities are just as important for healthy aging as strength. When you get up from a chair you need lower body strength, but you also need power to push yourself up out of the chair. One reason older adults become chair bound is that they lose strength AND power.
Here’s the real kicker. Research shows that power capabilities decline earlier and more precipitously than strength does. So, preserving the capacity to generate power is vital. How can you do that? Devote a portion of your training to explosive training. Increase the tempo of your strength training reps or integrate kettlebell swings into your training. Plyometric drills also build power as well. Think squat jumps, burpees, and tuck jumps. Strength training at a slow tempo won’t improve your power capabilities. So, up your training game by adding some power moves.
Healthy Aging: Flexibility
There’s a reason you don’t see 40 and 50-year old gymnasts. Flexibility declines by 5% with each decade of life and that can impact the rest of your training. If your body is flexible, it improves the efficiency with which you move. It also makes it easier to carry out daily activities, like bending over to pick something up.
What’s problematic is most people don’t devote enough time to flexibility training. That’s because it doesn’t burn a lot of calories and doesn’t deliver the same kind of visible returns you get from aerobic and strength exercise. But, remember, loss of flexibility will impact you at some point if you don’t take action.
As you age, warm-ups should be longer and you should end each workout with stretching to lengthen the muscles you just worked. However, static stretching BEFORE a workout can reduce strength and power. So, keep your pre-workout stretches dynamic and part of your warm-up. Save the static stretches until the end. Yoga is another type of workout that improves flexibility.
The Bottom Line
How balanced is YOUR workout? Are you trying to maximize all four of these fitness areas? If not, make adjustments so that you’re optimizing all four of these fitness components, so you can enjoy life even more as you age.
WebMD. “Five Ways to Boost Your Stamina”
MuscleProdigy.com. “Better Bone Density through Strength Training”
Endorcrineweb. “Type 2 Diabetes and Exercise”
Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2012 Jan; 40(1): 4–12. doi: 10.1097/JES.0b013e31823b5f13.
IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Power Training For Older Adults”
IdeaFit.com. “Power Training for Older Adults”
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