We’ve all seen 80 something’s on TV doing incredible physical activities that many of us only dream of doing, even at half that age or younger! So, what's their secret? Is there a way we can all maintain our strength and ability as we age?
Most people end up pretty frail after a certain age, and they lose the ability to do the things they love. Being able to hold on to your strength, mobility, and body control can keep you doing those things for as long as possible. Note: this article isn’t just for the over 40’s like me! Whilst the phrase ‘it’s never too late’ does apply here, it doesn’t mean you can’t start safeguarding for the future right now!
It’s a given that your body will change as you age, but that doesn’t have to make you less capable. You do have some control over how drastic those changes are, and what you can do as they happen. The idea is to set yourself up to be as capable as you are now, in 20, 30, 40+ years from now, and I'm going to outline how to do it.
Being fit and healthy for all the things that you need and want to do with your life has a lot less to do with your age and a lot to do with how you live your life. This article will explain the three biggest challenges of getting older, and provide you with simple strategies to maintain and even improve what your body can do as you age.
1. LOSS OF STRENGTH
As we get older we experience a decline in strength. When you think of common characteristics of older people, you might think weakness or frailty. The age at which that sets in, and the severity of that decline, largely depends on the person's exercise habits and how much they moved during previous years.
The decline in strength begins sooner and is far greater in non-exercisers, compared to the decline most lifelong exercisers experience. The most important thing to note is that while both categories of people experience a decline in strength, exercisers are able to hold on to their strength much better and for a lot longer, and the decline is far steeper for sedentary people. So, while you can expect to lose some strength as you get older, as long as you continue to exercise consistently, you could be doing things at 80 that most people can’t do at 20.
2. DECREASE IN FLEXIBILITY & MOBILITY
Flexibility is something people of all ages struggle with, but the decline past age 50 or so is pretty significant. One study showed a decrease in shoulder flexion of 5-6 degrees per decade, and a decrease in hip flexion of 6-7 degrees per decade after the age of 50. That’s a huge difference over several decades of life! Just imagine how limited your life would be if you lost 5-20 degrees of movement in any joint.
The good news is that flexibility training can have a significant impact on retaining and increasing range of motion as you get older, even if you’ve lost some of the mobility you may have had when you were younger. I often hear people complain about how flexible they used to be, but losing flexibility is only a given if you don’t do any flexibility training - use it or lose it!
3. IMPAIRED MOTOR CONTROL
Motor control is what allows you to put your flexibility and strength into controlled motion. Whilst people of all ages can struggle with motor control, this is arguably the most dangerous of the three to older people. Impaired motor control is responsible for losing balance and falling (which can lead to broken bones), as well as other potentially life-threatening consequences of poor coordination.
You’re probably not worried about the implications of impaired motor control now, but without specific training* you can expect to lose quite a bit of coordination as you get older. With proper training though, you can hold on to your motor control.
*Motor control exercises include exercises aim to coordinate and train the efficient use of the muscles that control and support the spine.
STRATEGIES TO HELP YOU KEEP DOING THE THINGS YOU LOVE FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE
Most of us will know someone in their 60’s 70’s or 80’s who is still active, strong and mobile. You probably also know someone in the same age group who is barely mobile and has been like that for years. If you were to look closely at their respective histories, you’re likely to find that the mobile person has been continuously active in all areas of their life and the other person has not.
Of course, there are medical conditions and injuries, etc. that affect some people’s twilight years, but excluding those, the primary indicator of quality of life as we age is how active we stay. The key to staying physically young has been proven again and again to be exercise.
So what should you do? Keep moving the way you want to when you’re 70.
Think about how you want to move 20, 30, 40 years from now. If you’re not already, start moving that way now and keep at it. That’s what will ensure your success further down the line.
Whilst you’re unlikely to be setting personal bests when you are 70, your relative strength compared to your peers who don’t exercise will be quite high. And at a certain point, even maintaining a level of strength will put you head and shoulders above everyone else.
So, find something you enjoy, something you want to do for as long as possible, and there’s a good chance you’ll still be going many years from now.
1. TACKLE YOUR WEAKNESSES NOW
As we discussed above, you can expect your strength, flexibility, and motor control to be lower at 80 than at 30, but the degree to which they decrease will depend on your activities. Take a hard look at your current levels of strength, flexibility, and motor control. Whilst there’s always room for improvement in all areas, there are often obvious deficiencies that we tend to gloss over and think we’ll get to later. Well, later needs to be now if you want to get anywhere.
If you already workout, the easiest strategy to address this is to prioritise that lagging area by moving it to the beginning of your routine. For example, if you’re fit but have never built any strength, this would mean introducing some weight bearing exercise to your routine. After your warm-up, your energy levels and motivation are higher and you are more likely to get it done as opposed to if you tack it on to the end of your workout. Work on it first with good concentration and then move on to your other training.
If you’ve never really exercised, now is a great time to think about how you’re going to start moving more. What type of exercise might you enjoy doing? What do your friends do? Maybe you can join in.
Taking the time to improve your weaknesses leads to bigger and better improvements later on. Have the discipline to start on it now and you’ll reap the benefits for years.
2. CYCLE YOUR TRAINING
There are whole articles and even books written on how to cycle your goals but I’m going to simplify it a lot for you, so stick with me.
Most people have more than one main training goal e.g perform an unassisted chin up, improve your overhead squat, perform a handstand. The following methods can be applied to any goals, however simple or complicated.
Most people don’t have lots of time to dedicate to training, so pursuing all three goals at once can leave you with little progress across the board. You can achieve many different goals but working on them all at once will stunt your progress.
So, how can you focus on one goal at a time without losing your gains in the others?
Periodisation is the technical term for a method originally developed in Russia. It can get quite specific, but at its core, it is the thoughtful cycling of different training regimens according to your needs and capabilities.
Goal cycling simply means focusing your training on one specific skill or goal for a chosen period of time, then transitioning to another skill or goal in a planned and progressive schedule. This enables you to make good progress on each goal, one after the other and then cycle back and work on the first goal again.
Cycling back through your goals does two great things. First, it makes sure you don’t lose your earlier gains. Secondly, it actually enhances your progress toward each goal because you have new skills and attributes from prior work on each goal.
There are 2 main ways of doing this:
Work for a ‘block’ of time on a particular goal, then move onto a block on the next goal, and so on. You will then revisit the first goal. A ‘block’ can be any period of time but it must be long enough to make some progress on that goal.
Work on different attributes on different days of the same week. So a ‘block’ would be just one day. With this approach you might work on strength one day, power on the next and endurance on another.
Even though you’re training for different goals, you’re never focusing on more than one on any particular day. This gives you the chance to get as much out of that session as possible, and not have your attention split between different goals.
FIND ROLE MODELS WHO KEEP YOU MOTIVATED
A lot of our ideas about health and ageing come from our own experiences with our families. If those don’t offer much inspiration, seek better role models. Look to these people for inspiration, so you can keep yourself motivated and engaged for as long as possible.
Being “young” isn’t just about your age. It’s about what you can do, and the confidence you have in your body. People too often think it’s “too late” to start, or things are only bound to go downhill at a certain point so it’s futile. It’s a shame that so many people view it that way, as there is so much value to be gained from a more realistic approach.
Hopefully I’ve given you some useful tools to put a plan of action in place and take ownership over that plan in order to keep doing the things you love as you get older.
If you’re not someone who’s had a particularly active lifestyle up until now, maybe this article will help get you moving. It’s never too late!
As always, if you need any help discussing how to get started or what you should be doing, please get in touch.