Once an athlete always an athlete, but that doesn’t mean that getting older won’t slow us down a bit. It will, and that’s a tough pill for active people to swallow. Maybe that pill won’t taste quite so sour when we realize the physical changes we can’t control as they are ushered in over an added decade or three.
Our genetics explain about 25% of our aging; our environment and our life choices define the other 70-80%. That’s good news for the aging athlete, as long as we can get over that hurdle — the thinking we should be able to do what we used to be able to do. A lot changes as we age, and out of respect for these bodies, we’d do well to acknowledge this and not be so hard on ourselves.
Here’s a list of some of the physical changes of aging:
- Heart — we’re slower
- Lower aerobic capacity
- Decreases in # of mitochondria
- Reduced capillary perfusion
- Brain — decreased blood flow to the brain
- Slower thinking and processing
- Slower decision-making
- Memory retrieval declines
- Muscles — we lose muscle tissue
- Anaerobic capacity decreases
- Lower muscle mass
- Reduced muscle force
- Slower speed of contraction as actin and myosin cross-bridges don’t cycle as quickly
- Recovery from training and injury is slower
- Adaptation to training takes longer, especially after eccentric exercise
- Joints — collagen matrix gradually degenerates
- Lower blood flow to joints (makes achilles tendon easier to rupture)
- Osteoarthritis incidence increases
- Body composition — Body Mass Index (BMI) rises
- Fatty tissue increases while
- Bone mineral content (lean tissue) decreases
- So % body fat goes up
Okay, with a list like that, do you really expect to be able to do what you used to? Perhaps the biggest challenge for folks who used to be able to do it all is our memory of what we used to be able to do. One glance at this list and we’ll realize our expectations are a bit overdone.
If you’ve managed to reach your forties without relative complaint, embrace your fifties and sixties as a time to make the absolute best of what you’ve still got! Decline is inevitable but the rate of decline is not. We can’t stop time, but we can “slow” it. Regular, reasonable physical activity is key.
Cardio workouts and pacing will be a bit slower because delivery of oxygen to our working muscles is not as efficient as it used to be. Still do it. Regular endurance training keeps us well-outperforming our peers and beating the sedentary lightweights who are decades younger. Big health benefits! Big mental and emotional boost!
While no amount of gym work will preserve all our strength, strength training can considerably slow the pace of muscle, tendon and ligament decline as we age. High intensity interval training (HIIT) — short bursts of high intensity exercise — gives us big bang for our buck. Plus, it helps sustain our reaction time, quickness and balance by activating the neuromuscular connections between brain and muscle.
Cardio training for the brain
Regular cardiovascular exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity helps the aging brain maintain function and clarity and decreases our chances of developing dementia. Exercise helps maintain hippocampal (the brain center associated with modulating stress and maintaining emotional control) volume, while improving sleep quality. A good night’s sleep helps us recover from all stresses, including physical training.
Flexibility and stretching
As we age we need to do even more regular stretching to address natural changes in joint function and muscle/tendon elasticity. Include some intentional balance challenges in your exercise. Yoga poses can be great for this! Notice which side needs a little extra stretching or strengthening as you sustain poses. You’ll know.
Aches and Pains
We’ve all got them. Be smart. Don’t push what’s been pulled. Don’t demand more from what’s exhausted. Don’t keep going just to keep up. It’s time to sustain the you that you’ve loved tending to your whole life.
Be good to yourself
Even if you’re not quite as quick, strong, coordinated or powerful as you once were, physical activity and recreational games can still do what they’ve always done — give us enjoyment and help us be easier to life with. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself the grace you’d extend to others in your sneakers. Your friends and family will thank you.
*Inspired by, If I Had Known I was Going to Live This Long, I would Have Taken Better Care of Myself, John R Sutton Clinical Lecture ACSM meeting, MN, 2018 by Robert Johnson, MD