Aging brings changes, some of them good and others less desirable. You’re certainly wiser at the age of 50 than you were at age 20. Other changes are less advantageous such as a decline in muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance. You may find you lack the stamina to do the things you once did with ease. These types of physical changes are harmful from a health standpoint because they increase your risk for health problems like heart disease, bone loss, and falls.
Here’s the good news. A growing body of research shows we can maintain a higher level of fitness throughout our lives with regular physical activity. You often hear doctors urging patients to walk for exercise. Walking certainly has benefits and is better than sitting on the couch – but is it enough to keep you in ship-shape as you age? As the years advance, you become less fit in four different areas. To stay fit you have to target all of these areas. Let’s look at each one in more detail.
Loss of Strength
It’s an established fact that we lose muscle strength and size with age. This process begins after the age of 30 and accelerates in women after menopause. With age, muscle fibers actually decrease in number and become smaller in size. Muscles that once occupied by functional muscle tissue is replaced by fat. As a result, you lose strength.
People who don’t resistance train have a higher rate of muscle fiber and strength loss than those who strength train regularly. In fact, sarcopenia, or the age-related loss of muscle tissue, is a major risk factor for falls and disability. The type of muscle fibers that decline most with age are fast-twitch ones, fibers you recruit when you perform strength and power moves. That’s why resistance training to help preserve these fibers is so important.
Research shows people who resistance train preserve more muscle mass and strength than those who don’t, and it’s never too late to get the benefits. Studies clearly show even elderly people respond to strength training with improvements in strength and muscle size. In fact, one study showed 12 weeks of strength training improved strength, power, and muscle size in men and women over the age of 90. Pretty impressive, isn’t it?
Loss of Power
Loss of strength is a problem but so is a reduction in power capabilities. Strength refers to how much resistance you can lift while power refers to how quickly you can lift it. Therefore, power is speed multiplied by time. Both power and strength are important. For example, you need strength AND power to rise from a chair.
As mentioned, you lose more fast-twitch fibers than slow-twitch ones as you age. This impacts strength and your ability to generate power. Specifically training for power helps you hang onto fast-twitch fibers and power capabilities. You can train for power by incorporating plyometric drills into your training such as squat jumps, broad jumps, platform jumps, and jump lunges into your routine. For upper body power training, medicine ball slams and plyo push-ups are effective.
Decline in Aerobic Fitness With Age
As you age, your aerobic capacity, or V02 max, slowly drops. As a result, maximum oxygen delivery to muscle cells drops and your exercise endurance gradually declines. In fact, your aerobic capacity drops about 1% per year after the age of 25, mostly because your heart, being a muscle, doesn’t pump blood and oxygen as efficiently. Well, guess what counteracts that? You guessed it – aerobic exercise. Regular aerobic exercise significantly slows the decline in aerobic capacity we experience as we age.
When deciding what type of aerobic exercise to do to stay aerobically fit, high-intensity interval training may be your best choice. Research suggests vigorous exercise is more beneficial for preserving heart health and the ability of your heart to deliver oxygen to tissues than low to moderate-intensity exercise. In fact, an Australian study involving more than 200,000 middle-aged and older people found those who engaged in vigorous activity reduced their risk of premature death by 13%. Rather than walking briskly or biking for an hour, pick up the pace and do high-intensity interval workouts a few times a week.
With age, changes occur to your tendons and ligaments that make us stiffer and our movements less fluid. The fluid that lubricates joints called synovial line declines and the cartilage that cushions your bones becomes thinner. These changes are exacerbated by disuse and lack of exercise. Do you sit in an office chair most of the day? Doing so causes your muscles to shorten and become less flexible. Any type of movement is beneficial, but you need to specifically do exercises that target flexibility as well. It goes without saying that you should do a dynamic warm-up before working out and stretch your muscles afterward but also add exercise that specifically targets flexibility, like yoga. This will help you stay flexible as you age.
Why do so many people neglect flexibility? Probably because the results of flexibility training aren’t visible to the eye. They don’t make you look better in a pair of jeans or a bathing suit, but they help you FEEL better – and that’s important too.
The Bottom Line?
Staying fit as you age is more than just taking a daily walk. You need strength and power training to hold on to your strength and muscle tissue and to preserve bone health. You also need flexibility work to counteract the joint stiffening that comes with age as well as training that gets your heart rate up. Engage in a well-rounded training program that doesn’t neglect any of these facets of staying fit as you age.
Exercise Physiology. Fifth Edition. McArdle, Katch, and Katch. 2001.
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Rejuvenation Res. 2015 Feb;18(1):57-89. doi: 10.1089/rej.2014.1623.
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WebMD. “Regular, Vigorous Exercise May Lengthen Your Life”
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