While a number of women come to me to get to a certain size or a certain number on the scale and others simply want to tone up, what they rarely mention is a desire to get healthier in order to slow the effects of aging — something they should be just as (if not more) concerned about.
As many of you know, I train women exclusively. But I have all age groups represented in my little training studio, with my youngest clients in their 20s and my most mature clients in their 60s and 70s. As a result, I have a lot to say about what I have observed as well as how a woman’s body ages.
It’s important to me that you take what I say here as what happens during the normal aging process, but to remember that much of it is reversible with good exercise and eating habits.
Read what I say, but PLEASE understand that there is a LOT you can do about this!
So what are some of the things that happen doing as we age?
Women can’t jump! Okay, I am riffing off the title of an old movie, but it’s true. As we age, we stop hopping onto and off things, going up and down steps on tiptoe in rapid succession, and our ability to jump becomes next to nonexistent unless we play a sport like basketball, kick a soccer ball, or do gymnastics. Think about it. Even yoga doesn't force us to jump. Once we realize (usually sometime in our 40s) that we no longer think of hopping down off anything, we begin to forget we actually did it when we were younger. Part of it may also be due to becoming risk-averse -- our innate fear of injury as we age, but the truth is, we tend to lose muscle mass due to inactivity. Our body’s elective loss of fast-twitch muscle fibers means that after age 30, our muscles grow less dense, while the amount of intramuscular fat increases. This deterioration leads to a reduction in the ability of our muscles to generate force rapidly, which directly impacts jumping ability. (Now you understand why I have you jumping rope or jumping onto a cube?)
Muscles naturally lose strength. How often do you notice older women who hunch over, or have rounded backs? Some of that may be due to osteoporosis or injury, but much of it may have to do with muscles that stopped being used to hold them upright. Our muscles do much more than simply make us strong. They actually hold every organ and bone in place as well. The weakening of those muscles can be likened to a really worn-out elastic band. And while we readily see changes on the outsides of our bodies, on the inside the break-down of muscle mass can cause even more annoying and painful changes no one ever seems to talk about. We reach peak muscle mass around age 35. After that, muscles begin to dissolve and are absorbed faster than bone is made, making them shrink in size and density. I know. Bummer.
Decreased flexibility enters into all this as well, robbing us of the ability to lift ourselves off a floor, bend a leg high enough to put on a pair of pants standing up, or even turn our heads as far as we used to. Movement can become more restricted and our coordination diminishes. As natural strength lessens, we simply lose the power and the ability to do the things we once did. One of my clients told me she was shocked that she could no longer use her upper body strength to pull herself out of the pool when she started swimming laps, habitually having to go to the other end of the pool to use the ladder and handles. Another said she hated that she couldn’t stand up up from a squatting position without grabbing on to something or someone when crouching down to play with her grandkids. Both had to ask themselves— when did these physical skills disappear? Did they just wake up one day and they were gone?
The truth is, of course, that it happens slowly, over time. Sedentary habits begin to take over, whether we begin sitting to longer hours in front of a computer screen or vegging out in front of the big screen TV. At this point, falls happen more easily (including rolling ankles and losing balance). We may tend to give up our gorgeous pumps and opt for safer shoes. With the loss of muscle and flexibility comes a loss of independence, which affects how we feel about ourselves.
Weight gain and sluggishness result from a decreased metabolism. Yup. Our bodies slow down and we get tired more quickly because our systems are simply not capable of breaking down calories and using them efficiently as they once did. If you continue to eat the same number of calories as you did earlier in life, it’s more likely than not that you will gain weight. Extra pounds can lead to diabetes, heart problems, high cholesterol, and hypertension— all of which can be deadly. Coronary heart disease and stroke are the number one cause of illness and death in North American women. The heavier you get, the less you feel like exercising. Do you see the potentially vicious cycle here?
The good news is that we no longer have to give in to the body’s natural aging process. I have some seasoned 60+ year olds moving better than some of my neophyte 30-somethings because they stuck with their goals and refuse to age without a fight. But whether you are in your 20s or your 70s, what you do with your life now affects what your life will look like tomorrow.
The most important thing you can do is to keep moving! Set your sights on at least 45 minutes of strength training or cardio 5-6 days a week, but get there in increments, increasing your time and intensity slowly (which, of course, I am happy to help with!) Cardiovascular exercise combined with strength training will increase your metabolic rate and build muscle mass, which in turn, helps you control weight and move more easily. The more muscle you build, the faster your metabolism. The more calories you burn, the less weight you gain.
You can bend and stretch at any age. Challenge your body. Calculate what percentage of your day is spent being active and how much you spend sitting, driving, or sleeping. Then compare that to how active you were when you were younger and find a regimen that works for you.
Just as importantly, make healthy food choices, always being mindful of what you you eat. Nourish your body from the inside out. Since calorie needs decline with age, eat less and choose more wisely, eating smaller healthier meals more frequently. And drink water! By the time you actually feel thirst, the cells on the inside of your body are already desperate. Water is the key to great skin, dense bones, muscle, kidney function, metabolism, and heart health. And never underestimate the importance of sleep to renew your mind, your body and your spirit. Sleep offers magical benefits.
There is one more thing I love to emphasize that can slow down the aging process. Laughter. The more you do of it, the more all those endorphins laughter creates boost immunity levels and reduce stress hormones. Did you know that hearty laughter expands the lining of blood vessels and improves blood flow much like a brief aerobic workout? So even if you don’t keep the company of funny people, throw a funny DVD into your player or head out for a movie that makes you feel good about life.
I felt it was important to write a post on female aging, because I want clients and potential clients to know that I take NOTHING for granted about these precious vessels we call our bodies. When you see me posting on Facebook about how I hate running sprints on weekends, I am right there along with you, doing what I have to do to age not only gracefully but well -- so that I am around for my kids, my grandkids someday and even for YOU! I love what I do, and I hope it comes through in every deadlift I make you perform, in every order to drop down and climb mountains, and in each imaginary boat I make you row. Let's do this together and show previous as well as future generations what great aging really looks like.