PUMPING IRONY: Damage Control

Experts say the more you exercise as you get older the easier it is for your body to heal. So why is my back still sore?

senior with kettlebell

On a recent Saturday morning, in a fit of unwarranted optimism, I picked up my dusty kettlebell and spent the next 15 minutes swinging it around as if I knew what I was doing. Squats, lunges, shoulder presses, a little Russian girevoy — all in all, an invigorating way to start the day. Two days later, I was regretting the whole thing.

This happens all the time. You work out, you get sore, you avoid the gym until you feel better, then you work out, you get sore. . . . I’ve always assumed that folks who work out more regularly than I do don’t get sore and, hence, can work out more regularly, but because that’s never worked for me, I have my doubts — along with this stiffness in my upper back due to that bout of Russian girevoy.

Recent research, however, suggests that the best way for geezers to repair the muscles they’ve injured by working out is to — you guessed it — go work out.

Stem Cells and Injured Muscle Tissue

This may seem like a variation on the no-pain-no-gain dictum you might have heard back in high school, but it’s more subtle than that. Regular exercise actually conditions the stem cells in your aging body to repair your injured muscles. Researchers at McMasters University in Canada, seeking to debunk the notion that elderly muscle tissue cannot be repaired, tested three groups of mice — oldsters that were exercising regularly, oldsters that were sedentary, and lazy youngsters — and found the geezer mice that stayed in shape were able to repair their muscles more effectively than their slacker counterparts.

As Gianni Parise, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, puts it, “Exercise pre-conditioning may improve the muscle repair response in older adults to stimuli such as acute periods of atrophy/inactivity and/or damage.”

This is encouraging news for geezers like me who allow their kettlebells to collect dust as part of an intuitive fitness approach that provides convenient excuses for ignoring their dusty kettlebells. If we’re stiff and sore in the morning (or afternoon), we give wide berth to heavy objects.

But Parise’s study is telling me that I should ignore my intuitive survival instincts and maintain a regular workout regimen, no matter how sore I might be. The more I exercise, he’s saying, the more my muscle tissues will be able to repair themselves. At some point, if he’s to be believed, I could abuse my body every day and never know the difference.

Theoretically, I’m completely on board with Parise; exercise — especially strength training — has been shown to extend longevity and improve quality of life for the senior set. But practically speaking, I’m skeptical. Wednesday afternoon, four days after my kettlebell torture, I spent 45 minutes at the gym resuscitating my cardio capacity and reacquainting my aging muscle tissues with the weight-lifting machinery. Five days later, I’m still waiting for the repairman to arrive.

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