by Khaled Allen
At the CrossFit gym where I work, we have athletes of all ages and abilities. Many of them are in their 30s and 40s. Some are in their 50s and 60s. We ask all of them to lift heavy weights and push themselves until they are gasping for air. As a result, they are strong and in great shape. Many senior athletes are reluctant to do so at first. But they soon realize that by asking their bodies to deal with controlled stress, they preserve and develop their strength much more effectively than playing it safe all the time.
I hear it all the time: “I’m too old to be exercising like that. You young folk should enjoy it while you can, because when you get to be my age, you won’t be able to move around so easily.” Usually the person I’m talking to is in their late thirties, maybe their forties.
I believe that not only should people be exercising throughout their lives, but that older people especially should be lifting heavier weights, running faster races, and actually competing in their sports. Just like most people need to increase the intensity of their fitness routines, older athletes should also be training as intensely as they can, instead of holding back out of fear because of their age.
There is a false belief that as you get older, your ability to engage in athletic pursuits diminishes. This belief is based on studies that claim to show definitively that as you age, your muscle mass and bone density decreases, your ability to recover drops, and your coordination and agility begin to falter. These are old studies, and have been replicated many, many times, so they must be justified.
These studies do not account for men and women running marathons in their 60s. They do not account for powerlifters in their 40s outperforming younger competitors. They don’t account for the masters swimmers who are leaving college kids in their wake. Are these individuals genetic outliers? Or are we missing something?
An article in the latest issue of AARP pointed out that these studies did not control for level of activity; they simply measured various indicators of fitness in the general population over a certain age. Most adults in their late thirties and forties pretty much give up serious exercise when they get busy with families and jobs. Since most Americans are sedentary after their twenties, this means that we’ve been making conclusions based on a population that has been inactive for 10+ years. Basically all you can conclude from them is that if you stop exercising for a long time, you will lose muscle mass, bone density, and coordination. If you don’t exercise, you will lose fitness.
Then a study will come along and look at older people who don’t exercise because they’re told they can’t, and it will conclude that older people are weaker and slower, and should therefore limit the intensity of their exercise.
You see how this is a circular problem?
The same AARP article cited more recent studies looking at active older adults which found muscles almost as energetic as in younger athletes. So if you do keep training, you stay fit. This should come as no surprise, but I still get into a lot of arguments with adults in their thirties and forties who say they simply aren’t as fit as they used to be. I ask if they’ve kept up their training, and they say “no, but that has nothing to do with it.” They just got old.
My belief is that these ex-athletes feel bad about letting their fitness decline. Instead of accepting responsibility, they blame their age. Instead of just getting back to the hard work of developing fitness, they make excuses.
Lance Armstrong said it well. At 37, he re-entered the Tour De France, with the stated goal of winning an eighth time. Many people questioned his decision, saying that he was just being selfish, or couldn’t move on in his life, and should accept that he’s getting older and shouldn’t be competing. His response: “Athletes at 30, 35 mentally get tired. They’ve done their sport for 20, 25 years and they’re like, I’ve had enough. But there’s no evidence to support that when you’re 38 you’re any slower than when you were 32.”
There is also a troubling belief among many that, rather than strengthening the body, exercise actually wears it out and that you can only be fit for so long before fitness turns into excessive stress.
Besides the fact that this view doesn’t make sense, it isn’t even supported by what few viable studies have been done, much less the anecdotal evidence of athletes in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and even their 90s who only start training seriously after they are considered past their athletic years.
It used to be said that muscle loss was inevitable, and all you could do was delay it by doing some basic resistance training. Nobody thought to actually try lifting heavy weights or doing intense exercise. Lo and behold, there are bodybuilders in their 60s and 70s, sprinters and swimmers, track and field athletes competing well into their nineties, all with impressive musculature. For visual evidence, check out Rick Rickman’s photographs of older athletes.
If you follow current trends in fitness, you know that the move is back towards functional lifts, performed at a load that permits only 1 to 5 reps, and short, high-intensity sprints. These loads have always been known to produce results, and have been used by high school, professional, and college athletes for decades. Compare that to what most of us have been doing in gyms for the last thirty years – lifting puny weights for sets of 10-12 reps, thirty minute bouts on the elliptical – and it’s no wonder we’re losing muscle as we age.
According to Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition, “We have underestimated as a culture, and maybe even in the field of exercise science, what older adults are capable of doing.”
What does all this mean? It means that aging, or at least the physical frailty that comes along with it, is a choice. You don’t stop exercising because you get old. You get old because you stop exercising.
Marathon Runner, christianisthedj on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/hcmedkamera/2080472076/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Shotputter, Rick Rickman, in an article by Anthea Raymond, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anthea-raymond/older-athletes-turn-heads_b_419637.html