You may be feeling strong and supple now but in a few decades, you could well start to notice a decline in muscle mass and overall fitness. So, when does that change start to kick in and what can we do to hold back the hands of time? Clue: make your love of fitness into a lifelong affair.
I was around 13 when I first started running with my dad. He’d run on ahead of me during our morning sessions, jogging on the spot at corners for me to catch up. When I was about 25, I finally overtook him and by 27, it was me who was jogging on the spot for him in the first 3K of my marathon training. While my strength and stamina were on the up, his were, at best, stablising.
Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m wondering how long it’ll be before my (future) kids overtake me, and is there anything one can do to slow down the impact that ageing has on our fitness goals? My dad, now in his mid-70s, still runs every morning and suffers far fewer injuries than I do. How?
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Weight training for life long strength
Studies have shown that strength training can counteract age-related impairments, mainly by reducing loss of muscle mass and motor function. They’ve also proven that twice-weekly strength training preserves bone density, strength and vitality, while reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, arthritis and type 2 diabetes.
The question is, at what point do those heavy lifts get harder and does being fit and strong when we’re younger delay that drop off?
Sarcopenia is the gradual loss of muscle mass that happens with ageing. We reach peak strength in our 20s and according to a 1997 study, power and strength start to decline for both sexes by our early 40s. After that, we lose muscle mass at a rate of around 5% per decade. The good news is that exercise can stave off an even reverse muscle loss. Older people who lift weights can slow or reverse that decline, even if they’ve not weight lifted before. A study of 57 adults aged 65–94 showed that performing resistance exercises like leg presses three times per week increased muscle strength over 12 weeks.
Counteracting age with cardio
Life-long cardio lovers can also give themselves a pat on the back. A University of Birmingham and King’s College London study looked at the muscles of 125 amateur male and female cyclists aged between 55 and 79 and found that a lifetime of regular exercise can slow down the muscle ageing process. The cyclists’ results were compared with a group of healthy people who didn’t take part in regular physical activity and who were aged between 20 and 80. The study found no losses in muscle mass or strength among older cyclists who exercised regularly. It also found that body fat and cholesterol levels remained unchanged with age, and the immune system didn’t age either.
In other words, exercise is always a good idea and if you keep on moving throughout your life, you’ll continue to reap the tremendous benefits.
“There are a few objective markers that biology has as markers for when performance can drop, like testosterone production, which seems to be in that 28-32 year time window,” explains Danny Mackey, head coach for the Brooks Beasts Professional Track Team.
Metabolism slows and human growth hormone production (the stuff that regulates body composition and muscle growth) drops as we age, but Danny doesn’t think that these facts have to necessarily be negative. Speaking from a running point of view, he says that in his experience – backed by research – “the best way to make running easier as we age is to keep doing it.” It seems logical to think that the same is with all sports; if you keep lifting, dancing, cycling, then you’re likely to keep going for longer.
“I’ve watched athletes in their 80s sprint and do it fairly well,” Danny says, pointing out that even at the professional level, it’s now normal for men and women to be world-class competitors in their early 40s.”
Interestingly enough, I’ve seen first hand how little difference age can make in running. At my first marathon, I found myself talking to a bunch of women in their 50s who ran a marathon every year and who were aiming to beat my goal by some distance. In the 100km race I ran the following year, a paramedic told me that my friend and I were being beaten by a runner in his 70s who was two hours ahead of us. The medic put it down to the fact that the pensioner had practised yoga for the past 40 years and as such, was more limber than the army guys we were jogging with. In marathons at least, it seems that experience > age and power.
If we look at some of the strongest female athletes around right now, we can see that some are only just reaching their prime in their mid-30s. Katie Taylor, the Irish two-weight world champion and undisputed lightweight champion boxer, is 34. Swimmer Dara Torres won three medals at the 2008 Olympics, aged 41 while Dame Kelly Homes took gold at the 2004 Olympics in the 800m and 1500m (only the third woman ever to do the double), aged 34. Things may naturally start to drop off in our 30s and 40s but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any power over how our bodies operate.
How to stay young at heart (and other muscles)
- Keep moving. Whatever it is that you like doing, keep on doing it – whether that’s lifting, running, swimming or rollerskating.
- Commit to weekly strength training. Strength training is by far the best thing you can do to build lean muscle mass and it’s important to carve out one or two sessions a week. You’ll find that it helps with your other activities as well.
- Eat well. You can’t overlook the impact that nutrition can play on our overall wellbeing. Try to have a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit and veg, legumes, healthy fats and good quality proteins.
- Stay flexible. Flexibility and balance are two of the most important factors in staying independent as we age. You want to be able to balance on one foot for a minute and be able to tie your shoelaces without having to couch down or hold onto something. The better balanced and supple you are, the lower chance you have of falling.
Ready to start laying the foundations for life-long health now? Pop over to the SWTC training plans for introductions to strength training, running-specific circuits and more advanced sessions that are guaranteed to push you to the next level.
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