By: Dr. Mercola
Increasing physical frailty as you age is commonly accepted as “a fact of life.”
Until recently, most studies showed that after the age of 40, people typically lose eight percent or more of their muscle mass with each passing decade.
But newer research suggests that this is not a foregone conclusion.
One recent study of 40 competitive runners, cyclists, and swimmers, ranging in age from 40 to 81, found no evidence of deterioration — the athletes in their 70s and 80s had almost as much thigh muscle mass as the athletes in their 40s.
Quoted in the New York Times, Dr. Vonda Wright, who oversaw the study, said: “We think these are very encouraging results…
They suggest strongly that people don’t have to lose muscle mass and function as they grow older.
The changes that we’ve assumed were due to aging and therefore were unstoppable seem actually to be caused by inactivity.
And that can be changed.”
Other recent studies have had similar results. For example, in an animal study from last year, elderly sedentary rats put on a running program developed new satellite cells after 13 weeks. These cells are specialized stem cells known to repair and build muscle tissue.
Lifelong Activity is Best, but it’s Never Too Late to Start
Over the past several years, researchers have discovered that it is indeed possible to restore the ability of old human muscle to repair and rebuild itself. However, the need to keep aging muscles in shape has also been demonstrated, as long periods of atrophy are more challenging to overcome. These findings fall into the category of common sense, along the lines of “use it or lose it.” And as you age, physical exercise becomes an ever more important aspect of optimal health and longevity.
The good news is that it’s really never too late to start an exercise program, even if you’ve been inactive for a long time. Just keep in mind that older muscles do not respond as well to sudden bouts of exercise, so to take precautions and start off slow, to avoid injury.
Making Exercise Safe and Effective as You Age
Safety is always an important aspect of exercise, but becomes crucial if you’re older and just embarking on a regimented exercise program. Unfortunately, many elderly forgo exercise altogether because of a fear of injury or pain, when, in fact, proper exercise will ultimately reduce your risk of injury as well as help to improve pain.
If you’re elderly, it’s advisable to get a workout buddy — a personal trainer or someone who is experienced — to help guide you through your routine. Start off slowly and gradually increase intensity as you grow stronger, avoiding activities that aggravate or cause pain. Just keep in mind that while you need to use caution, you do need to exercise at a level that is challenging to your body.
Otherwise the true benefits will be forfeited.
Ideally your fitness program should be comprehensive, providing the necessary balance-training activities for stability while also improving your strength, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capabilities with high-intensity “Peak” exercises.
During ‘peak exercises,’ you raise your heart rate up to your anaerobic threshold for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a 90-second recovery period. You repeat this cycle for a total of eight repetitions. Peak exercises are particularly beneficial for aging bodies as this type of interval training triggers the natural production of human growth hormone (HGH), also known as “the fitness hormone.” HGH plays an integral role in maintaining youthfulness and strength. (For an in-depth explanation of my peak fitness regimen, please review this past article.)
While anaerobic Peak exercises may seem too advanced for the elderly, don’t let the intensity dissuade you! Rest assured you can perform Peak exercises at ANY age. The only difference is that the older you are the lower your maximum heart rate will be.
My Latest Findings on Optimal Exercise
I’ve been recommending doing Peak 8 exercises three times a week, but after doing that myself for about a year, I gradually felt that it was too much for me. I cut down to once a week, which seemed to work out well. But after discussing it with Phil Campbell, he made a compelling argument to increase it back to three times a week. Getting growth hormone produced three times instead of just once a week can have profound health benefits, so I bumped it backed up.
I decided to make additional changes after I interviewed Dr. Doug McGuff, who is a strong proponent of Super Slow weight training. That interview will be published on January 6th, so for more information about Super Slow weight training, please open up that newsletter. Dr. McGuff believes that you only need 12 minutes of Super Slow type strength training once a week.
I really enjoyed my interview with him as he helped me appreciate a nagging truth that I hadn’t quite captured yet, and that is the crucial nature of recovery integrated into listening to your body.
The Importance of Recovery
I have known the importance of “Listen to Your Body,” and always advocate this when it comes to selecting foods. But this also applies to exercise and recovery. The epiphany I had with Dr. McGuff is that I wasn’t applying the ‘listen to your body’ principle with respect to my exercise program. When I grilled him on the parameters of how to know if you are recovered from your exercise, he said:
“You would have a restless energy and feel like you have to engage in some type of physical activity. You will spontaneously just want to work out.”
Well that had not happened to me for some time, and I believe I was pushing myself too hard and had not allowed myself enough recovery time. This is probably not a problem for most people who exercise, as they are more than likely not pushing themselves hard enough, but when you go to extremes like in Peak Fitness, this is a serious risk you need to pay careful attention to.
So right now I’m in a massive experimentation phase, and I’m having fun playing around with my exercise program. I will likely be exercising the same length of time, just breaking it up differently, and listening to my body. I suspect that will be more ideal for me and I intend to report on my results so you can learn from it.
The lesson here is that life is an exciting journey, and you’re never “too old.” As you age, you do need to adjust however, and discover through trial and error what works best for you. Learn to listen to your body so it can guide you onto a path that will provide you with the most efficient and effective benefits.
For the Elderly, Exercise Can Quite Literally Save Your Life
As you get older your muscle and bone mass decrease and the senses that guide your balance — vision, touch, proprioception — may all start to deteriorate, and this can make you unsteady on your feet. Needless to say, bone fractures and brain injuries resulting from falls can be life threatening. Exercise is a key to maintaining your balance as you get older, and should really be viewed as a necessity — like eating and sleeping — as it can quite literally save your life.
By taking the time to do balance, strength and other exercises on a regular basis you can keep your sense of balance strong, and even restore what’s already been lost.
In a study published last year, eight weeks of balance training reduced slips and improved the likelihood of recovery from slips among the elderly. Separate research, which noted that “altered balance is the greatest collaborator towards falls in the elderly,” found balance training is effective in improving functional and static balance, mobility and falling frequency in elderly women with osteoporosis.
The ability to balance on one leg is also an important predictor of injury-causing falls, so if you know that you’d be shaky if you tried to stand on one foot, you’re at an increased risk of being hurt in a fall and should start appropriate exercises immediately.
Yes, You Can Exercise at ANY Age
Earlier this fall I posted a couple of videos showing my mother’s exercise routine. She didn’t start working out until she was 74 and now, at the age of 77, she has gained significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity.
Exercise Strengthens More than Muscle
Your muscles aren’t the only benefactors of a comprehensive exercise program. While many are misled into thinking toxic drugs are the answer to combat decreasing bone density, the truth is that weight-bearing exercise is one of the most effective remedies against osteoporosis—another common problem related to aging.
Without question, osteoporosis drugs are likely to cause more long-term harm than benefit. Studies have actually linked bisphosphonate bone-strengthening drugs like Fosamax, Actonel, Boniva and Reclast to an increased risk of femur fractures. One of the latest and largest studies to date discovered that women who’ve been on bisphosphonates for more than five years have a nearly three times higher risk of these dangerous fractures…
Your bones are actually very porous and soft, and as you get older, your bones can easily become less dense and hence, more brittle—especially if you are inactive.
Resistance training can combat this effect because as you put more tension on your muscles it puts more pressure on your bones, which then respond by continuously creating fresh, new bone. In addition, muscle is heavier than fat, so as you build more muscle, and make the muscle that you already have stronger, you also put more constant pressure on your bones which automatically helps maintain bone strength.
The Many Health Benefits of Exercise
There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence confirming that exercise is a key player in disease reduction, optimal mental, emotional and physical health, and longevity. After reviewing 40 papers published between 2006 and 2010, researchers found thatexercise reduces the risk of about two dozen health conditions, ranging from cancer and heart disease to type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia and depression. Exercise also slows down the rate of aging itself, providing perhaps the closest example of a real life fountain of youth as we will ever find.
Ideally, you will have made exercise a regular part of your life long before you reach your “golden” years … but if you haven’t, there’s no better time to start than the present. Research has shown that regular exercise, even initiated late in life, offers profound health benefits. For instance:
- Even a small amount of exercise may protect the elderly from long-term memory loss and even help reverse some of the effects of aging.
- Moderate exercise among those aged 55-75 may cut the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which increases heart disease and diabetes risk.
- Among those who started exercising at age 50 and continued for 10 years, the rate of premature death declined dramatically, similar to giving up smoking and mirroring the level as seen among people who had been working out their entire lives.
Remember, It’s NEVER Too Late to Improve Your Health
It should be obvious by now that optimal health is dependent on an active lifestyle; eating fresh, whole foods, avoiding as many processed foods as possible, and addressing the stress in your life. Ignoring any of these basic tenets of health will eventually lead to a decline in health and any number of diseases.
Physical exercise is particularly important to maintain a high quality of life, as limited mobility can take a great toll… So start moving, and don’t stop no matter what your age!
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