Forget the clichés about ageing. It’s possible to get fitter and stronger as you get older.
Evidence of the supposedly inevitable drop in our peak physical performance seems to be all around us. Footballers start losing their edge in their early 30s and by about 35 most are struggling to make the team. Ordinary gym goers find that intense exercise starts to get harder in their 40s as their maximum heart rate declines with age. And in our 50s and 60s, the ugly spectre of muscle loss raises its head. Left unchecked, it will make even the act of sitting down a difficult task for any sedentary person hitting their 70s.
But it’s nature and you can’t do anything about it, right? Wrong. As fitness experts better understand what happens to the human body as we age, they’re realising that much of the decline can be slowed and even reversed with the right kind of exercise.
Look at how you train now. Typically, as you reach your goals, you set new ones and change your training programme in order to overload your body so that you keep progressing. With the emergence and popularity of a number of different ways to train, such as high intensity interval training and Olympic lifting, many of you may be including these types of exercises in your workouts. You may have grown tired of your previous training programme or simply love the idea of mixing up your training sessions.
Regardless of why you want to evolve or change your training, the question you will ask yourself is: does this type of exercise help me reach my goal? But now there’s a new, really important question to consider as well: are you training the best way for your age?
Sport science is showing that exercise can slow down, and in many respects, reverse the physiological effects of ageing on your body, such as reduced muscle mass and function, bone and joint strength and mobility.
However, you probably didn’t know that the type of training you do plays a significant role in how you age. By making some small adjustments to your workout, you can help anticipate your body’s physiological shifts so that, as you continue to grow older, you also become fitter and stronger.
Train the Movement not the Muscles
Traditional resistance training methods have been used successfully by fitness professionals for decades to support the goals of weight loss, bigger muscle size and to define and improve muscular strength.
In recent times the importance of resistance training for slowing or reversing the gradual age-related loss of muscle mass and function has also come to the fore.
According to one of Australia’s leading experts in exercise and ageing, Maria Fiatarone Singh, Professor of Medicine and Exercise at the University of Sydney, resistance training is critical — aerobic exercise by itself won’t stop the decline in muscle mass and function, which is known as sarcopenia. She says sarcopenia starts when people reach their 50s and 60s and can become severe enough to affect function in their 70s and beyond.
But traditional weight training may not be the only solution for the kind of resistance exercise you need to include in your training programme as you get older, according to new insights from fitness science. Developed to isolate muscles and provide the greatest amount of resistance at a point where a muscle can develop the greatest amount of force, classic weight training does a very good job at overloading the muscular system and training the muscles. The load being moved in this type of training is being lifted against the forces of gravity, usually in a linear movement.
But while this style of training is relevant for some training goals, such as bodybuilding, it also has some limitations. The only time a muscle really works in isolation is when you are using a machine designed for isolation, with a fixed plane of motion and a single axis of rotation.
There is plenty of research that supports a shift away from conventional resistance exercises that focus on the contraction at one particular joint or muscle group to ones that use a variety of loads in multiple directions, which develop integrated strength across the entire network of muscle and connective tissue in the body.
In other words, the style of resistance training we do as we age should expand beyond classic weight training to support improvements in functional strength that will slow or even reverse an overall decline in physical performance as you hit your 50s and 60s, or prevent loss of physical function in your 70s.
Two German researchers considered among the world’s foremost experts on human movement, Dr Robert Schliep and Divo Muller, have clearly stated:
“Exercise programmes that use a variety of loads while moving in a number of different directions at different speeds may be more beneficial for training the entire myofascial network as one integrated unit.”
In short, if you do resistance training with a variety of loads moving in different directions—instead of just, say, pumping weights — you’re not only working to prevent muscle loss but you’re strengthening the system of connective tissues throughout the body, a combination that will benefit overall strength and mobility as you get older.
Even when the focus is just on boosting muscle, these kinds of exercises are the most effective, says Brad Schoenfeld, another global expert on resistance training:
“Exercises should be varied in a multi-planar, multi-angled fashion to ensure maximal stimulation of all muscle fibres.”
When we consider what becomes important and relevant as we age, particularly when it comes to the Activities of Daily Living (ADL), we see clearly that our muscles are inherently designed to work as an integrated system, rather than in isolation. Training the movement is more important than just training the muscles as we get older. Having greater functional strength and mobility is more important than just isolated strength.
Movements in Activities of Daily Living
Let’s explore the kind of movements we tend to perform on a daily basis, our so-called ADLs. If you’re a parent spending the day with your young child and you are moving around the house, simultaneously picking up your toddler and also picking up after them, are you conscious of how you are performing your lunges or squats?
And if you’re in your 60s and dragging heavy gardening equipment around, are you using proper lifting techniques to get that Flymo down off the wall? Quite possibly no, yet you have survived despite completing these tasks using less than what we would consider “perfect form” in the fitness industry (please note: the loading we are discussing here is sub maximal — the closer we move toward maximum loading the more important perfect technique becomes).
With this in mind, performing similar movements in a training environment will definitely support efficient movement and reduce the risk of injury. And as you get older, this becomes even more important.
Examples of this would be lunge movements in multiple directions, squatting patterns where the position of your feet is varied and over-shoulder medicine ball tosses.
The movement demands of life are variable and unpredictable — it would therefore be remiss of us not to prepare the body for some form of variability. By moving this way, we are, most importantly, preparing the connective tissue for the demands of movements that happen in less than ideal situations, or what we all may call real life!
If you play sport, your body needs to be prepared for even more variability. Consider a football or rugby player and the movements they will experience in their sport, which are totally unpredictable and generally asymmetrical in nature (where they will be loaded to one side of their body or they will require the ability to apply force in a less than symmetrical state).
However, we traditionally tend to train in a very secure and symmetrical state despite the fact that life and sport don’t happen in this fashion.
The new thinking on movement
Typically, too many people stick to what they know in terms of training, but this can be very dangerous considering that your goals in your 20s are unlikely to be the same in your 40s and 50s, when your body’s needs are changing with age.
Fitness educator and Institute of Motion Founder, Michol Dalcourt, was the creator of ViPR, the whole-body training tool that combines traditional resistance work with full-body movement (and which you’ll find in any Fitness First gym).
Dalcourt has developed a new way of thinking about training programme design in terms of movement. He takes different ways of exercising and groups them into one of four movement quadrants: Classic Resistance Training, Unloaded Linear Training, Unloaded Multi-planar Training and Loaded Movement Training.
Dalcourt’s 4Q programme design model
Although Dalcourt’s “4 Quadrant Programme Design Model” in the table may seem highly technical, it’s actually a simple and accurate way of classifying common exercises and is a good tool to assess how balanced your training is when it comes to your goals and your age.
There is no definitive answer on the right balance of how much training you should be doing in each quadrant (that’s still ultimately down to the individual) but rather it‘s built on an understanding that too much of anything isn’t ideal. It will quickly highlight if you have a need to start including other training methods if, for example, you realise you spend your entire week training in only one or two quadrants.
The key consideration for training, particularly as we fight the forces of age, is what blend of the four quadrants is relevant to us? This is a very individual thing and would be best discussed with a fitness professional.
Ultimately though, a balanced training programme requires elements of all four, and as we age, rather than traditionally load the body with compressive forces three to four times a week, we could split this into two loaded and two unloaded workouts.
If you feel you’re out of balance you might decide to increase the amount of unloaded training you do because your workouts are simply lifting weights. Alternatively you may elect to increase the amount of loaded training you do because you do too much unloaded spinning and running.
The 4Q model provides a framework for you to explore different options in your daily or weekly workout. It can be a great lens through which to look at your programme to ensure you are getting the right balance for your age.
An increasingly sedentary lifestyle, coupled with long hours in a seated position, can potentially be disastrous for the human body. Our historical bias towards the left side of the 4Q Model, focusing on linear movement such as running, cycling, or classic resistance training may not be enough to ensure proper function as we age.
Including more multi-planar movement is essential, particularly as you get into your 40s and beyond. So as we increase in years the best change we can make to our training programme is to shift more to the right of Dalcourt’s table and start doing more multi-planar exercises.
Loaded multi-planar movement training is one of the most effective ways to help develop total body strength and muscle definition as we grow older, by training all of the muscles together as one system. It’s defined by Dalcourt as “movement based resistance training that combines full body, task orientated movement patterns with load”.
According to Dalcourt, the benefits of this type of loaded multi-planar movement training for people as they age include:
- Integration of a number of physiological systems: muscle, fascia, connective tissue, and nervous system (multi-directional exercises also help improve skin elasticity and appearance)
- Less pressure on the joints and skeletal structures of the body
- The focus on movements through gravity increases tension on the fascia rather than compressive loading of the joints
- Using a variety of loads and starting positions, movement patterns can improve multi-directional strength, mobility, stability and power
- Exercise is one of the best ways to slow down ageing. By applying loaded movement training to your programme — at the right time based on your age— you can ensure you perform a well-balanced workout that delivers results.
You may not be able to control getting older, but with movement as your foundation of how you train, you can still make each year your fittest and strongest year yet.
The two things that slow you down
Ultimately, there’s two big reasons your physical performance drops as you age, says Professor of Medicine and Exercise at Sydney University, Maria Fiatarone Singh. The first you can compensate for, the second you can stop or even reverse.
In the first, your maximal heart rate goes down.
“That’s something that’s not amenable to training. You can alter how much work you can do at a sub maximal heart rate, which is most relevant to real life, but you can’t actually alter your peak heart rate.”
The reason that no training will bring back your original, maximal heart rate, according to Prof. Fiatarone Singh, is related to a decline in the ability of adrenaline receptors in the heart, which prevents them from communicating effectively with the timing cells that dictate how fast the heart is going.
“That’s something that people have found you can’t alter by exercise, but exercise can certainly alter the amount of work that you can do at a given heart rate.”
The second thing that affects physical performance as you age, says Prof. Fiatarone Singh, is a decline in muscle mass and function.
“It begins at 50-60 but is generally not severe enough to affect function until later, at 75 and beyond. The combination of age-related sarcopenia, disease, under nutrition and inactivity produce the clinical problem most severely.
Some of what we think is age-related is simply underuse of muscles. The only exercise that builds back muscle is some form of anabolic exercise like resistance training. Aerobic exercise like walking or running neither prevent nor treat sarcopenia.”
Resistance training becomes more important the older and frailer the individual is, Prof. Singh says, and can be started at any age. In fact, her studies with nonagenarians in a nursing home showed they could build new muscle fibres in their 90s!
Someone who is presented with daily evidence of the decline in muscle mass in people as they get older is Dr Jarrod Meerkin, an exercise physiologist who runs MeasureUp, a company that carries out DEXA body composition scans. DEXA scans accurately determine the mass and distribution of fat and muscle in the human body.
“Between the ages of 20 and 80, you get a decline in muscle fibre size. That causes the loss of muscle mass with ageing. Not only just muscle mass, but muscle strength and function.”
However, Dr Meerkin says the point when the decline starts to accelerate isn’t entirely controlled by nature.
“What they’ve found is that the acceleration occurs in conjunction with a lack of physical activity or exercise. So for example, if you are active and you are doing everything possible, you will still probably get a slight decline in muscle mass with ageing. But if you sit on your bum and do nothing, you will have an increase in that decline, in which you could get up to 30 percent muscle loss by the time you’re 80.”
In short, both Prof. Fiatarone Singh and Dr Meerkin agree that muscle loss can be slowed and even reversed with exercise.
Prof. Fiatarone Singh says:
“That’s important because muscle loss is something that you can actually alter the trajectory of, whereas the peak heart rate is not something that you can alter as you age.”
And if you can exercise to prevent that loss of muscle mass, you can largely prevent the cascading physical collapse that it triggers.
Runners are onto it, too
Among the first to understand the importance of upping the resistance component of training to compensate for ageing driven muscle loss were athletics coaches looking after masters athletes.
On his blog, renowned US running coach Jeff Gaudette writes that
“Much of the decrease in race performance with age can be explained by decreases in oxygen uptake, upper and lower body strength, flexibility, and muscular (explosive) power. Therefore, this is where you should target your training as you approach your career as a masters runner: working on oxygen uptake in interval workouts, muscular strength and power with weights and strength exercises, and flexibility with stretching.”
Gaudette points out that the drop in race times of marathoners’ performances as they age is much slower than you’d expect:
“About 1-2 seconds per mile per year for medium-distance races (10-15km) and 4-6 seconds per mile per year in the marathon. While maximum heart rate, oxygen uptake, strength, power and flexibility tend to decrease with age, training will slow the rate of decline, and running economy will be maintained even into your 60s!
Given that running economy doesn’t change much in your later years, it makes sense to shift your focus from racking up big mileage as a younger runner to getting in (and recovering from) high-quality workouts and ancillary training sessions as a masters runner. And incorporating more weight lifting and stretching into your routine will guard against the effects of ageing on your muscles.”
Sydney athletics coach Rod Clarke, who looks after several champion Australian masters runners says “weight training has always been a big part of my regime”. As his runners get older, he replaces the heavy loads they once did with more hill training, a strengthening activity.
“You can’t keep doing these heavy loads that we used to do when younger. Hill running is very much a strength-based exercise and that’s definitely one thing I have older athletes do a lot longer. ”
Does more focus on resistance training work? You bet. Clarke’s 400m and 800m relay teams are hoping to break records at the Pan Pacific Games in Queensland later this year.
Top 4 Ageing Effects
- Metabolism slows down—As your metabolic rate drops you become more predisposed to storing excess energy. Bodyfat levels will increase if you don’t get the balance of training and healthy eating right. Raise intensity if possible and do a higher volume of work in less time, using total body movements
- Mobility decreases—During our working life we unfortunately spend far too much time hunched over a computer, which starts to reduce the level of flexibility and mobility we have across our major joints. Doing unloaded multi-planar movements such as those in Yoga help to correct posture and restore mobility
- Bone/joint strength decreases–You have a reduced ability to absorb compressive forces on your joints, so start to reduce the volume of high impact activities like running on the road, and replace high load/low rep workouts with low load/high rep exercises. It will decrease spinal loading and minimise structural stress to protect your joints
- Muscle mass declines–In your 50s, muscle loss tends to speed up and can be as much as a 10 percent loss every decade since. If you’ve been lifting weights, start looking at multidirectional loaded movement. If you haven’t done strength-based resistance exercises before, start now!
KEY PROGRAMME DESIGN PRINCIPLES TO CONSIDER AS YOU AGE