Hacking the Older Body to Make it Perform Younger

Image credit: outsideonline.com

I just read an article called Age Is Irrelevant When It Comes to Fitness published at Outside magazine. Unfortunately, most of the references and advice are directed at endurance athletes such as bicycle racers, and particularly those older athletes who are seeking to maintain their performance, as opposed to those of us who are approaching exercise later in life (or for that matter, those of us who emphasize resistance training rather than endurance).

Nevertheless, there are some pretty good nuggets in the article that are useful for the older gym rat.

A lot of it quotes 71-year-old Joe Friel who is a long-time bicycle racing guru.

Although Friel’s ultimate goal is to stay faster and more competitive on a bicycle longer, he also suggests:

  • Lifting heavy weights – “When you train with heavy loads for several weeks, you develop younger muscles,” Friel writes. “Lifting increases the body’s production of muscle building hormones such as growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin growth factor.”
  • Eating more protein – “Recent research … strongly suggests that we need more [protein] as we age,” writes Friel. How much depends on myriad factors, which Friel gets into in his book. The general takeaway is to spread protein intake throughout the day, since the body is limited in how much protein it can process per meal.
  • Sleeping better and longer – “Sleep is definitely the key to better performance with aging,” writes Friel. How much? “If you’re using an alarm clock to wake up, you’re not getting enough.”
  • Considering more passive recovery – If active recovery involves light activity—a short bike ride, an easy run—after a race or hard training session, passive recovery is doing basically nothing at all. Friel suggests weaving in more passive recovery as you age.
  • Being conservative – Training hard at middle age and beyond can be fraught with risk, as anyone who’s felt their back go sproing during a hard workout will tell you. Injuries heal more slowly as you get older, and that downtime can be tough. “Moderation and consistency” are the best way to ensure longevity and success, counsels Friel.
lower back pain
Photo credit: theboxmag.com

That last suggestion seems to fly in the face of everything else coming out of Friel, which seems to add up to “work harder, faster, and take no prisoners.”

That said, I tend to agree with pretty much everything on this list. I think we older folks need to lift and lift heavy (as long as our physical condition can tolerate it) in order to build back our strength and lean muscle mass.

I’m comforted that we are supposed to eat more protein as we get older (Note to self: must tell my long suffering wife this). The details, as the article states, are in one of Friel’s “Training Bible” series books, but the story’s author didn’t bother to say which one, which is a tad annoying (it would have helped if the author, Nick Heil, would have cited his specific sources and used footnotes).

Sleeping is kind of a no-brainer since in general, sleep contributes to everyone losing (fat) weight across the board, not just seniors. The problem is that older people routinely have difficulty either going to sleep or staying asleep throughout the night (a problem to which I can personally attest).

Since at age 61, I’m not retired, and I have a “day job,” I use an alarm clock. That said, it almost never goes off, since I generally wake up before 4 a.m. and turn off the alarm set for that time. Probably the only days I do get adequate sleep are on the weekends when I don’t have to wake up to meet some sort of schedule.

The idea of passive recovery, or doing nothing (relatively speaking) between bouts at the gym, would please my wife, who thinks I’m pushing it. Last Saturday, I didn’t go to the gym, skipping my ab and cardio session, so except for the yard work, I had two full days of no athletic activity (I’m doing a freelance writing project and needed the weekend to get caught up on my work).

I may come to a time when I’ll reduce lifting from three to two days a week, maybe Mondays and Thursdays, in order to take advantage of this, but I’m not in that place yet.

Being conservative makes sense, but for a lot of people, this means going light, probably too light on their workouts.

muscle recovery
Image credit: active.com

On the other hand, that really depends on who you are and what you’re dealing with.

The other day at the gym, I approached a fellow I know named Gary. He was using the seated leg curl machine, and I noticed he was exercising a very limited range of motion. Gary tends toward a limited range of motion, and I happened to mention this to him.

As it turns out, he has a bad back (I didn’t ask about the details), and since a fuller range of motion would put more stress on his back, he takes it easy on his leg curls and other exercises.

Far be it from me to give out bad advice and, if Gary’s chiropractor suggests he not push it at the gym, in this case, that’s a good idea.

But if you happen to not suffer from a physical condition limiting activity or range of motion, where’s the excuse for holding back?

Well, as the last point in the “Friel list” tells us, being older, all by itself, can sometimes result in our backs going sproing just because.

In spite of what my wife thinks, I really do approach my workouts conservatively, easing up the weights gradually, and only trying to “kill it” occasionally. It’s always going to be a balancing act between caution and challenging yourself.

Which brings up another resource quoted in the article, Todd Becker’s blog Getting Stronger. Becker is an advocate of something called hormetism which, in this case, means the periodic application of some form of stress under controlled conditions, in order to build up strength, endurance, and other qualities.

This is pretty much what weightlifting and weight training does. You stress your muscles by making them lift heavy weights repeatedly, and then allow them to rest in order to respond to that stress by becoming stronger.

Becker outlines his basic theory on his Overview page, but what he calls “stress” can involve a wide variety of conditions including, among other things, “stressing” your eyes to improve your eyesight.

staying young
Image credit: lifehack.org

Becker’s approach seems kind of “out there” to me, but he also recommends Bill Gifford’s new book Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying) which looks rather compelling (and as it turns out, it’s available through my local public library system, so I think I’ll have to check it out).

It seems that for people who have been physically active and even intensively physically active for much or most of their lives, it’s possible to extend their “youthful” performance past age 50, 60, 70, and, in some cases, beyond.

But what about we “mere mortals” who haven’t been so active or only intermittently athletic in years and decades past? Can we take what we’ve got right now and build on it, building ourselves up?

That’s what I’ve dedicated this blog and my lifestyle to finding out.

What you do today can improve all your tomorrows.

Ralph Marston


2 thoughts on “Hacking the Older Body to Make it Perform Younger

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