This is a picture I took about 6 months ago of me and one of my friends from the gym, Dick Jackson, who is in his late 70s. I saw Dick do 10 pull ups today. Did I mention he also did 2 tours in Vietnam 50 years ago? One of his rules is this: No complaining. I love it. You are not meant to grow old and feeble either.
I’ve worked with many adults in their 80s and 90s who live an active and enjoyable life. I’ve also worked with many adults in their 60s, 50s, even 40s and 30s who have a hard time getting around. There are 10s of millions of people in America at all ages who function at an impaired level due to a lack of exercise, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, arthritis, and / or psychological issues as a result of stress. I work with one client who is 85, has no major health issues, plays golf several times per week, dances with his wife, and travels out of the country several times per year.
Genetics and luck certainly play a role in the development of disease- cancer, heart disease, etc.- and aging, but by no means are they the exclusive determinant of how we age.
1) Lifestyle choices and our 2) psychological health and makeup play a dominant role in our physical health as we age. The choices we make on a daily basis in how we choose to see the world, how we interact with others around us, what we eat, how much we sleep and rest, the environments we expose ourselves to, and how active we are determine the way and rate at which we age. One person may be 55 in chronological age and have a true age of 35 and another person may be 35 in chronological age and show physical markings of a 55 year old.
According to the book Healthy Aging by integrative and holistic medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Weil, there are two basic theories on aging:
1) Caramelization and
2) Oxidative stress
Caramelization is a complex scientific process by which living organic material turns brown (like food or cells of the body). Imagine Grandma’s lasagna browning in the oven- this is caramelization. Caramelization is the result of a chemical process called glycation – an interaction between glucose (sugar) and proteins that results in the production of gunk (the brown on top of the lasagna) inside or outside of the body.
The main culprits of glycation are known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs result from the reaction between proteins and sugars and they damage proteins, as well as DNA and RNA, causing inflammatory, autoimmune, and proliferation responses. Some examples of foods that contain AGEs are donuts, barbecue meats, dark colored sodas, and other processed foods.
Diabetes is a prime example of what happens when AGEs wreak havoc on the body. Diabetes, or uncontrolled blood sugar, produces AGEs and ages the body prematurely by causing numerous inflammatory, autoimmune, and proliferation responses like coronary artery disease, loss of vision, cataracts, swelling and loss of feeling in the extremities, and fatigue symptoms, among others. The “gunk” produced by glycation inside the body is thought to “gum up the works” and age the cells and systems of the body. This is why it’s crucial for someone who has Diabetes to exercise, to control these destructive effects on the body’s inner workings.
Oxidative stress is another form of aging damage and comes from the creation of free radicals in the body. Oxidation is the process of removing an electron from an atom or molecule and then in turn the unstable electron, known as the free radical, reacts with other electrons causing a chain reaction of damage to cellular structures. Oxidative stress could be defined as the total burden placed on a living being caused by the constant production of free radicals from metabolism and by the environment, natural and artificial radiation, and toxins in food, water, and from tobacco smoke.
Over time, free radicals damage the cells of the body and cause inflammation which can then lead to a host of problems- arthritis, memory loss, heart disease, and cancer, to name a few. Healthy compounds known as antioxidants, which are found in foods, help stabilize these reactions by bonding with the free radicals. Some popular examples of foods high in anti-oxidants are oranges, beans, berries, and tomatoes and tomato products, though there are many others. The major benefit of eating a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables is the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of these foods which work to limit the damage done by free radicals. You are not meant to grow old and feeble.
Exercise and How It Directly Affects the Aging Process
Amazing gains have been made in US life expectancy. In 1900, the life expectancy in the US was 47 and by 2010 it had risen to 76. Ironically, the increase in life expectancy has occurred as the amount of physical activity Americans get on a daily basis has declined dramatically. The gains in life expectancy have been made not through lifestyle factors like diet or exercise but through the incredible strides in the access and quality of the US healthcare system, including life-saving cardiovascular and cancer treatments. Though Americans are living longer, not all are living better. Many unhealthy Americans are kept alive using cutting-edge technologies, surgeries, replacements, pharmaceuticals, and treatments.
Remember- when the health of one system is affected it can have a pronounced impact on the others. For example, with aging a decline in cardiovascular or musculoskeletal (bones and muscles) health can also cause a decline in mental health. In this scenario, we’re not quite as physically fit as we use to be, so we’re not as engaged mentally as we use to be either.
Unfortunately, we’ve all seen the people who are cranky and unhappy, so they don’t exercise, so they’re stiff and achy so they are cranky and unhappy. This spiral can keep getting worse and worse.
For sure, if we are lucky enough to live in to our older years, we will experience somewhat of a decline in cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength, balance, and flexibility. How much of a decline depends on what we do to keep ourselves in shape. When an older person falls and breaks a hip, or experiences a heart attack, the recovery process can take its toll mentally. Problems will occur with aging, but if we’re fit it will be much easier to recover and bounce back.
Strength Training and Aging
Strength training has several important benefits for aging, most importantly the building and/ or maintaining of muscle and strength as we age. By the time a person reaches 65-70, strength tends to decline by a third, but by performing strength training exercises this decline can be prevented and strength could remain almost the same as a young person’s. Many of the strength gains which come from resistance exercise happen as a result of the neurological coordination improvement of developing and maintaining motor patterns over time. Strength training builds good motor patterns and muscle and joint function, not just size and tone.
For example, I have seen many adults in their 40s and 50s, unable to perform a simple squat. Without this simple motor skill ability, many tasks such as getting up and down off the floor or going to the bathroom can be quite difficult. If a person never (or rarely) squats, the person will lose the ability to squat. It’s that simple. If a person wants to be able to squat, squatting must be done at times in order to maintain enough strength to do so.
This is the essence of the neurological and coordinative motor pattern benefit of strength training. Even if strength training exercises are done with light weight, or in the case of bodyweight exercises with no weight at all, they can at a minimum help a person maintain strength through the practice and continued use of simple motor patterns developed at younger ages like squatting, climbing, pushing, swinging, sitting up, crawling, and lunging.
Don’t be confused, there are many other benefits of strength training outside of the strength that comes through the maintenance of motor patterns and coordination, such as the maintenance or gain of lean muscle mass, boosting of the sex hormones, facilitation of circulating blood glucose in to the tissues for energy, aerobic fitness improvement, and the maintenance and building of bone mass, which is important to prevent bones from breaking in falls or accidents.
The bottom line is that strength training helps us maintain the ability to move as we age. Look at it this way: As my friend and mentor Bill Jackson, Director of Recreational Services at Auburn University says- if you move, you’re an athlete.
Tai Chi is a great example of a type of exercise in which muscular strength and balance can be maintained over a lifetime using only one’s bodyweight as resistance. Tai Chi is a Chinese meditative (not religious) martial arts form of exercise involving slow, deliberate movements which require strength, balance, memory, and focus. If you’ve ever traveled to Asia or seen scenes from Asia on travel shows, particularly China, many of the people you see in the public squares exercising are performing Tai Chi.
It is a superb form of exercise at any age, but it is particularly appropriate for older adults or for arthritis sufferers who want to do something gentle to maintain strength and balance. A person’s reaction time decreases naturally with age and falls become more common. Tai Chi or any type of balance or strength training prevents a severe loss in reaction time and falls.
Consider your own situation and find what works best for you. For many, a combination of strength training, martial arts, and/or some type of yoga may be appropriate to stay physically strong. The hardest part is moving. I know you’re tired and there are so many other things you need to do. Business is an excuse.
You are not meant to grow old and feeble. You are meant to move. You are not meant to complain and do nothing. You are meant to move. You are not meant to opine about the “good ole” days.” The good ole days are now. You are meant to move now. You are not meant to grow old and feeble.
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