I’m 70. There, I said it.
None of my previous milestone birthdays — not 40, 50, or even 60 — got my attention. But 70 did.
For whatever reason, 70 seems a lot older than 69. It fact, it felt different enough that I contemplated the start of my eighth decade for the better part of a year. My greatest concern was that it might signal the beginning of the end of my lifelong adventure as a serious athlete. I simply didn’t know what to expect.
We know that our bodies go through several key physical changes that affect our fitness and athleticism as we get older. So leading up to my Big Seven-Zero Day, there was one question I wanted answered: How can I slow, or perhaps even reverse, my loss of fitness?
From research and personal experience, I’ve learned that with the right training, you can maintain — and improve — fitness as you age. The -following guidelines have helped me stay on top of my game, and they can help you stay fit after 50, too.
The Facts of Aging
Let’s face it: Time changes us, at least to some degree. And as you get older, some people will probably step forward to offer “helpful” advice on how you should adjust your fitness efforts — usually by warning you away from exercising so strenuously. Advancing age means you must slow down, they say. Maybe they tell you -horror stories of broken bones, of heart attacks. Look at so-and-so, they say. He wouldn’t stop, and now he’s getting knee replacements. Overdoing it is bad for you. Back off — you’ve earned a rest. Enjoy the twilight of your life.
Ugh, I know. But here’s the thing: By the time we’re in our 50s, it starts to become apparent to most of us that some things are progressing the wrong way, even if we’re active.
The first thing aging fit people usually notice is that we don’t recover as quickly from our workouts and training sessions, or race as quickly, as we did just a few years earlier.
We might also be feeling a loss of power. Hills seem steeper and we will probably see certain performance markers declining. This sort of decline is, to some real extent, inevitable; we just don’t know how rapidly it will occur.
Scientists have a long list of phenomena that are typical signs of aging. But if you’re active and vigorous, you aren’t typical. And that’s good.
Still, even the most athletic among us can expect certain performance-diminishing declines with advancing age. I call them the Facts of Aging:
Fact 1: Body fat increases. We all experience a significant change in body composition starting around age 65. Compared with when we were 25, most men lose about 26 pounds, and women about 11 pounds, of lean mass — mostly muscle — by their late 60s. This, combined with hormonal changes and slowing metabolism, often results in higher body-fat levels.
Fact 2: Aerobic capacity decreases. Your maximal heart rate reduces as you age. The volume of blood pumped with each heartbeat also decreases. The result is that you simply aren’t capable of delivering as much oxygen to your working muscles as when you were younger, and your VO2 max declines.
Fact 3: Muscles shrink. Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle as we age. Starting around age 40, a progressive decrease begins. As muscle fibers are lost and aerobic enzymes in the muscles become less effective and abundant, we experience a decrease in strength.
Meanwhile, there’s some other depressing stuff happening in our bodies — loss of bone density, an increasing propensity for total-body acidity, a slowing of metabolism, a loss of joint range of motion, and so on. But the three Facts of Aging are most often the reason for declines in fitness and athletic performance as we get older.
Here’s the good news: With consistent exercise and healthy lifestyle habits, we can minimize or reverse these symptoms of aging and remain fit and active well into our 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond.
The Value of Exercise
Exercise keeps you healthier and biologically “younger,” regardless of intensity. It’s powerful medicine when it comes to your health.
If your reason for exercising is to live a long life filled with vibrant family activity and fun for many years to come, then vigorous and frequent exercise of any type is the way to go.
What scientists know best about exercise and aging is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between older people’s volume of exercise and their risk of premature death, regardless of cause. In other words, the more you exercise, the less likely you are to die early.
While aging naturally takes a toll on the performance of active people and aging athletes, its impact is minor compared with the loss of functional performance that inactive people experience due to disuse. Most people “rust out” from inactivity rather than “wear out” from being overly active. (For more from Experience Life on the process of “rusting” and what you can do about it, see “Glutathione: The Great Protector“.)
Remember when we discussed the first Fact of Aging: Body fat increases? Exercise and nutrition are your best allies in overcoming this challenge. (For more on food habits that age you, see “Food Habits that Age You”.)
Genetics and lifestyle — often referred to as nature and nurture — are both important here, but there is reason to believe that the major contributor to performance decline as we get older is nurture, with nature playing a smaller role.
This contradicts what our society has come to believe: that the vagaries of aging occur at a given rate, are inevitable, and are completely beyond one’s control. That line of thinking makes it easy to throw up your hands and surrender.
A vigorous lifestyle — and especially strenuous activity or training for a sport — has a powerful influence on physiology and longevity. Longitudinal studies show that reduced workout and training intensity can result in significant declines in the performance-related physiology of athletes over time. At the same time, research has demonstrated that loss of a vigorous lifestyle, along with diet, may also explain the declining lifespan of native populations.
Some scientists who study sport and aging also see the balance tilted toward the nurture side, because as we age, exercise behavior (nurture) appears to play a significant role in how our given genetic biology (nature) plays out.
This balance could be around 60:40 or even 70:30. In other words, 60 to 70 percent of our reduced performance might be explained by changes in training (and lifestyle in general), with the changes due to biological aging accounting for only 30 to 40 percent.
Bottom line: A lot of how you age, and how much it affects your fitness, is entirely up to you.
Forever Fit: Training Guidelines
So how can you exercise to slow aging while also maintaining — or even improving — your -fitness and performance?
The answer is not all that mysterious. What drives the physiology of exercising and training in middle age and beyond is no different from what it was when you were in your 30s. It’s about how hard, how long, and how often you exercise.
What does change, however, is your capacity — physiological and psychological — to handle the stress associated with exercise. Your “repair” mechanisms aren’t quite as efficient as 20 years ago, and you may notice it takes a little longer to bounce back after an intense workout.
Balancing your strength and cardio efforts with plenty of recovery is the key to increasing your -fitness -capabilities and boosting performance. (For more from Experience Life on building your own workout program, go to “Build Your Own Workout“.)
1. Interval Training
Think back to the second Fact of Aging: Aerobic capacity decreases. To stave off that decline, you need to regularly challenge your aerobic capacity and VO2 max. The most effective and efficient way to do that is interval training: high-intensity bursts combined with time for recovery.
When you perform intervals, the absolute intensity, duration of repetitions, number of repetitions, and duration of recovery between intervals must be only slightly more challenging than your estimated current capacity for physical stress.
Translation: You must know, or be able to sense, your physical limits and not exceed them. (Metabolic testing can offer insights for making the most of your efforts, without overdoing it.)
That’s why, if it’s been a while since you last did this type of workout, it’s best to take a conservative approach. Don’t try to get in shape in just a handful of sessions. Too much too soon nearly always results in an injury or other bodily breakdown.
Taking a long-term approach — building your intensity and capacity over several weeks — will help you safely produce the results you want.
If you’re new to interval training, or you haven’t done interval training recently, start here:
1. Warm up for at least 10 minutes, gradually increasing the intensity to a moderate effort.
2. Then do three intervals, with a 3:1 work-to-rest ratio. In other words, push the pace with your choice of cardio or resistance training for 90 seconds, then slow down so you can recover for 30 seconds.
3. Cool down with several minutes of easy exercise.
Start with one interval workout per week. Over time, increase the number of weekly sessions to two if you have the stamina and time. A heart-rate monitor can be a helpful tool for monitoring and adjusting your efforts based on your current fitness level.
2. Strength Training
Many people believe their hearts should be the target of their exercise efforts, but the loss of fitness with age largely depends on lean muscle mass.
The heart is essentially a pump that responds to the needs of the muscles by speeding up or slowing down its rhythm to meet their demands. If you want to be highly fit, focus first and foremost on your muscles. Your heart will follow suit.
Strength training is also our best bet for offsetting the third Fact of Aging: Muscles shrink.
A regular resistance-training regimen can help you retain and regain muscle mass at any age. Forget the myth that you can’t build muscles in your 60s and 70s. Though it may not happen quite as quickly as in previous decades, you definitely can. Sedentary people of all ages, including those in their 80s, have successfully improved muscle strength with weightlifting.
If you have not done resistance training for some time, take several weeks to progress from light to heavy loads. (For tips on figuring out the amount of weight that’s right for you, see “Expert Answers on Figuring Out How Much Weight to Lift“.)
For more on the value of strength training, go to “Be Strong“.
Strength Training Tips
Cody Sipe, PhD, cofounder of the Functional Aging Institute, has devoted his career to developing training strategies that help older adults improve their functional fitness. Here are his general recommendations for strength training, which help protect against the negative effects of aging.
For more on interval training, see “Steady-State Cardio Vs. High-Intensity Interval Training“.
3. Rest and Recovery
Hard workouts require recovery time. While there’s no precise formula for determining when you need to take a break — and for how long — there are some guidelines based on markers of fatigue. Some signs that you may need to back off:
Perceived fatigue. Symptoms include muscle soreness, poor sleep, low motivation to exercise, general malaise, localized leg or arm fatigue, heavier-than-normal breathing during easy workouts, and unusual difficulty in walking up a flight of stairs.
Mood. If you’re irritable, it may be a sign that you’re tired and need rest.
Waking heart rate. Check your waking pulse daily, before you get out of bed and while still lying down, to see how it compares with other days. When you have other signs of fatigue, such as muscle soreness or moodiness, you may find that it is elevated 10 percent or more above the baseline.
Heart-rate variability (HRV). Counterintuitive as it may seem, the length of the intervals between heartbeats will vary more when you’re well rested. When you’re fatigued, the length of the intervals will be more consistent. (Learn more about HRV at “Expert Answers: What is Heart-Rate Variability“.)
Physical signs. Itchy eyes, a runny nose, or the appearance of cold sores on your lips could signal an overwhelmed immune system and a need for more rest.
When any of these indicators are present, use sleep and nutrition as your primary recovery tools.
Even if you do everything right, of course, at some point you’ll find your body (and your performance) changing. But that doesn’t mean you should give up challenging your body or pursuing the fitness activities you find rewarding.
Strong, fit, fast, and powerful are all achievable goals at any age. By being proactive and strategic in your fitness pursuits now, you can beat the typical odds and not only preserve your current capacity longer, but also enjoy even greater fitness pursuits and achievements for years to come.
For more on the art of recovery, see “The Recovery Zone“.
Adapted from Fast After 50. Copyright © 2015 by Joe Friel. Reprinted with permission of the author and VeloPress.