Mirror, mirror, on the wall, when the heck did my backside fall? And what’s up with those flappy things on the back of my arms and the noises my joints make? And when did I get those creases around my mouth and eyes? And can somebody please tell me why I came in here? Who of us of a certain age hasn’t asked these questions? Nothing can quite prepare us for the changes our bodies are going to experience as we age. The panic that sets in when we start experiencing these changes is the very reason people spend billions each year on cosmetic products and procedures to recapture their youth. There seems to be almost no limit to what people will do or pay to turn back the clock, but did you know exercise can help slow the aging process naturally?
That’s right. Though the body experiences many physiological changes as we age, exercise can slow many of these processes. We are not at the mercy of the clock. Think about it. We all know many people who do not look or act their age, and yes, sometimes it’s because they have “good genes.” However, usually it’s because those people make a concerted effort to take care of themselves by eating a healthy diet and exercising, and they don’t make excuses. They are winning at the aging game.
These are just a few of the changes that occur as we age and how exercise can improve our outcomes:
As we age, we may become weaker and stiffer. After the age of 30, we experience about a 10% loss in muscle strength per decade due to atrophy, or wasting away if we don’t get adequate exercise, and after 40, we begin to lose power. Our muscles simply shrink if they aren’t being used. Lack of exercise also makes our muscles and joints stiff because of something called crosslinking, which is when additional collagen develops between the muscle fibers causing them to “stick together.” As this happens, there is a reduction in muscle extensibility which then also restricts joint range of motion. As if that weren’t enough, there is also a reduction in nerve conductivity and a gradual loss of balance.
This does not have to happen to us. We can maintain our cardiovascular fitness, our lean muscle mass, and our balance by getting 150 minutes of cardiovascular training each week, incorporating some HIIT, or high intensity interval training, as well as performing resistance training and multiplanar movements. The old adage, “Use it or lose it” comes to mind here.
Weight training with an adequate load keeps us from losing our lean muscle mass. In addition to that benefit, the movement we get from doing cardio, HIIT, and weight training in the frontal, sagittal, and transverse planes prevents crosslinking of collagen fibers that leads to muscle and joint stiffness. Movement is magic! Movement is medicine! We must keep moving throughout our lives. It’s much easier to maintain our health and fitness than to try to regain it.
We lose cardiorespiratory fitness as we age. If we do not perform cardiovascular exercise on a regular basis, from the time we are 25 years old, our oxygen consumption begins to diminish at a rate of 10% per decade as our cardiac muscle begins to atrophy. Exercise can’t be an occasional or hit or miss activity. It must be consistent and continue throughout our lifetime. I’ve heard so many times, “I can’t believe I’ve only been gone from the gym for a month, and it feels like I’m starting over from scratch. How did I go downhill so quickly?” Our bodies are made for motion, so we must keep going. As hard as it is to face our workouts some days, it’s easier than stopping and starting over again and again and again.
We all experience changes in our hormones as we age. Ever wonder why there are so many advertisements for testosterone boosting products? Men over 35 begin experiencing a 1-3% decrease in testosterone per year. Testosterone promotes muscle synthesis and inhibits protein degradation. Resistance training and HIIT help to increase testosterone naturally, as does adequate sleep. Males who gain weight due to inadequate exercise get another assault to their testosterone. Adipose (fat) cells release something called aromatase which converts testosterone to estradiol, a female sex hormone. This is the reason some older males appear to have breasts. Again, exercise boosts testosterone levels and promotes weight loss which can keep testosterone from being converted to estradiol. That’s a win/win in my book!
Other hormones that are affected by exercise are Human Growth Hormone, whose name speaks for itself, and IGF-1. Exercise increases the amount of HGH we have. HGH increases protein synthesis to rebuild muscle fiber, help increase fat metabolism, and enhance immune cell function. HGH also stimulates production of IGF-1 which has been shown to prevent the loss of brain tissue and increase Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which we’ll discuss below. There are clinics where people pay a lot of money for HGH to slow the aging process, but now you know that you can produce it yourself for the low price of a monthly gym membership!
With aging can also come cognitive decline. We’ve all witnessed loved ones experience this and maybe wondered, “Will that be me some day?” Cognitive decline may include diminished thinking skills, loss of memory, difficulty concentrating, or impaired judgment. As we experience the heartbreak of seeing friends or loved ones decline, we needn’t be worried. We can help our brains to age better with, you guessed it, regular exercise.
Exercise increases something called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF for short. BDNF is a protein that keeps existing neurons healthy and encourages the formation of new brain cells. Exercise also increases the flow of oxygen to the brain which also improves cognition. In his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving & Thriving at Work, Home, and School, John Medina points out that aerobic exercise just twice per week can cut our risk of dementia by 50% and Alzheimer’s by 60%. I like those numbers!
Older adults who engage in regular physical activity demonstrate better performance on a variety of cognitive tasks compared to sedentary older adults. It’s also important to note that the activity that is most effective is varied activity. We must involve ourselves in activities that keep us alert, thinking, and learning new skills because that’s what promotes new connections in the brain. Ditch the same ol’ same ol’…….. Zumba anyone?
Wrinkles are an inevitable part of aging. Ugh, I know, nobody likes talking about wrinkles! That’s why I saved it for last. Though our skin inevitably experiences changes over time, we can hold our own in the arm wrestle with Mother Nature. Collagen is what helps our skin have its youthful, firm appearance. We produce less collagen as we age. Less collagen, along with cross linking of the collagen and elastin in the dermis, as well as decreased muscle mass and skin thickness, make wrinkles become more visible as we age. While we can’t thwart this process altogether, we aren’t helpless either. Exercise stimulates collagen production and human growth hormone which helps with tissue repair. So, in addition to drinking plenty of water, eating 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and using your favorite cleanser, sunscreen, and moisturizer, make sure exercise is always a part of your skin care regimen as well.
I hope I’ve given you some encouragement to continue to exercise not only for vanity’s sake, but also for your mental health as well as your physical health. If you’d like a little more encouragement to keep up the good fight, click on the link below to watch a video of the world’s oldest female bodybuilder. She’s a stunning 81 years young, and she has no intentions of retiring. I want to be her when I grow up!