We are all getting another year older, whether we want to or not. Some of you come to me with dreams of getting buff, participating in marathons and competitions, and simply looking amazing, and I am always happy to help you on that journey. But what about aging? My 40-50+ clients are especially aware of how age robs you of muscle, balance, and flexibility and adds unwanted pounds unless you regularly strength train, exercise and watch your diet. Let’s study a few reasons why it’s important to (1) start a regular exercise regimen as soon as you can and make it a habit, and (2) exercise becomes ever MORE important as you age.
Truth be told, there is little that gives away age more readily than size. Why? We expect older adults to be heavier -- period. I have one client who admits that each succeeding decade of her life added 10 lbs. She was 120 in her 20s, in the 130s in her 30s, 140+ in her 40s, etc. And she admitted to me that while she loves the idea of aging gracefully, she simply could not accept having the extra weight, wearing a size not commensurate with her height, and the diminishing of balance and flexibility. She is on her way to getting where she feels she should be, but confides that it's a constant struggle. She was never much one for exercise until now and realizes it won't happen overnight.
So why do we (well, most of us) get “puffier” as we age? As I mentioned, we lose muscle tone and it’s muscle that burns fat. If you look at a woman who is 70 years old and compare her to what her body was like at 25 years of age -- even though her weight may be exactly the same -- she had more percentage of muscle in her body when she was 25 than she did when she turned 70. You see it all the time. A skinny woman can have flabby underarms. A slender guy can have a spare tire. Muscles stop supporting posture without having been challenged and maintained and you see people as early as their 50s beginning to hunch over a bit or even see the signs of "dowager's hump" in women. It's not an accident. It's aging without attention.
When we were younger and our muscle cells got damaged, they quickly repaired themselves. According to UCLA researcher and geriatrician Jonathan Wanagat, we still don’t know why muscles literally shrink as we age, but there are a number of theories. In an NPR report, he cites, "I think one of the ones that have become increasingly interesting and popular is the idea that the stem cells in the muscle are not able to respond to damage or to aging the way they did when we were younger.” He goes on to say that if damaged muscle cells aren't repaired, they tend to whittle away and die. Contributing factors are the decrease in growth hormone, testosterone and estrogen levels.
To top is all off, the muscle cells we're left with are sort of worn out, according to Cheryl Phillips, president of the American Geriatrics Society. "If you think of muscles as being the energy powerhouse of our body, that's where most of our calories are burned. And when we talk about metabolism, what we're really talking about is how efficiently those powerhouse cells — the muscle cells of our body — burn the energy we bring in."
What has not changed: energy is delivered to the body in the form of calories, but if you keep your caloric intake exactly the same as you get older, says Phillips, those unburned calories end up as fat. That's where exercise comes in. Wanagat says countless studies have shown that exercise — even among individuals in their 80s, simply works. It actually helps the muscle cells get not only bigger, but also stronger. "We aren't sure exactly how exercise makes muscles stronger, but we know that when we measure the grip strength of the hands or feet, grip is strongest just after exercise, even among people in their 80s and 90s. So weightlifting at any age offers low risk and great benefit,” he says.
A UCLA study found that people over age 75 are likely to have chronic joint problems because joints are less able to tolerate the strain and stress of movement. Building joint and muscle strength can defend against that. If you are past 50, you WILL be sore after workouts, but people in their 30s get sore too. Don’t let it discourage you, because you are doing your body a favor, both now and for the future, with each lunge, leg press, and plank you do, no matter what your age.
I didn’t write this to depress you - I wrote it to jump-start you! Proper food intake is more than three-quarters of the reason some of you exercise religiously but don’t see the 6-pack abs hiding under the layer of fat on top. But age can also creep up and rob you of muscle tone and you won’t feel a thing, even if you’ve never been overweight.
It can actually get scary -- take it from those who know. One day you'll just notice you can't lift yourself out of the pool with your upper body strength. Or you'll go on a hike and find you can't take large mountain stair-steps as easily as you once did. The time to think about all this is now – not 10 years from now. The unalterable fact is that exercise can keep you young in more ways than you can even think about in the present moment.