Aging happens over time, and with it comes many changes to the mind and body. I know it sounds tautological and mundanely simplistic, but science is still investigating what and why things deteriorate as we age.
While most of age-related research is on diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, etc, the one that may matter most in preventing and managing them is sarcopenia.
Sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass even if you continue lifting weights, is one area that exercise scientists are investigating because so many of them are getting older (yours truly) as are their parents. I have addressed this many times here, here, here and here in the past. With the burgeoning Baby Boomer generation coming of age, this has significant healthcare impact: how does loss of muscle mass contribute to disease and life-shortening, emergency-room visiting healthcare costs?
I’ll use this recent study to address this issue in greater depth. That’s because you need to appreciate why it’s so meaningful despite it being done on lab rats. (Gym rats are harder to regulate and supervise, as anyone who’s walked into a gym in January can attest.)
By using mice, which don’t live as long as humans, we can test the impact of an intervention to determine its effects over a shorter but relative time frame. So mice who are not exposed to an opportunity to move a lot can give insight into what sedentary behavior can contribute to the health of an organism. Likewise, mice exposed to an intervention like exercise – say, an exercise wheel – can tell us more about its effects on muscle and nerves than that of a human similarly exposed.
For one thing, we can – cruelly but necessarily if you want to know more about physiology – kill the mice to see what their bodies do in reaction to a specific intervention. In the study to which we’re referring we see that their nervous system stays wired as they age much like that of younger mice.
And it didn’t take much to maintain the nervous system, exercise-wise. The message is clear: doing some is better than doing none. This is the message the health and fitness industry should be touting but that’s not how to make a good living. Let me explain.
This afternoon a middle age woman contacted me at the recommendation of her orthopedic surgeon who, kindly, told her she might want to meet with me since we’re of a similar age (and, by implication, damaged musculoskeletal structure.) Clearly desirous to resume her previously-active lifestyle of hiking and biking in our local park, Percy Warner, she wanted to know how often she’d need my services, taking into account cost.
Now some might suggest that the science supports doing 3/wk of resistance exercise to optimize benefits. However, the research, as I’ve written about here and here, has shown that middle and older age people benefit from doing twice a week at least for those first couple of months. This is because older, de-conditioned (as she is now after a year of multiple surgeries on various segments) people are more apt to injure themselves, get sore and resign themselves to the couch if they do too much too soon.
There is a science to this fact: as we age, our collagen protein that make up muscles, tendons, ligaments, and even bone and skin, change from Type 1 to Type 2: from supple and flexible to denser, stiffer material. Interestingly, however, the skin collagen goes from being tighter, stiffer and firmer t0 – you guessed it: looser, more saggy!
Anyway, with muscle-tendon tissue being stiffer, put under repetitive loads, more tearing occurs. In weight training, muscle damage that leads to recovery leads to strength gains and resistance to muscle tears. This is true for young and old. However, due to collagen stiffness with aging, more tears mean more soreness mean longer recovery times to gain the benefits of the activities that led to the tearing in the first place.
And that extended soreness, if not allowed to fully recover, while good for your college jock is painful and demotivating for your grandma. Or you, if middle age.
So I recommended we start with twice a week and I’d give her homework to do to expedite the tissue-toughening that constitutes the second phase of strength training benefits; the first phase is neurological, which low-resistance training will confer during that first month or so.
Back to the aging mice. If a human does a little bit of activity as she ages, enough to cause some muscle damage but not so much as to cause pain, she can maintain functional strength and joint integrity with relatively little commitment. As the study says, neurological benefits also accrue and these may have long-term consequences we don’t yet know about.
But for now, it’s enough to say that twice a week of 1 set of 10-15 reps of a load that does not require strain beyond a 6 on a 10-point scale for the first month or so is enough for most novice, unfit middle age or older folks. There are some body parts that may require more attention – arms, for example, vs legs, which always work more if you’re ambulatory – such as those that have been injured, surgically repaired, or essential for one’s chosen activities.
Now it is true that more benefits come from 3/wk training sessions, and multiple sets with higher levels of strain – 8-9 on a 10-point scale. But it’s wise to allow at least 6-8 weeks to build up to where you can do this kind of intensity and frequency. If you’re recovering from or dealing with a chronic injury, higher reps of lower loads may be your future until you fully recover – or have a joint replacement. But for your average, get in shape, middle age workout, a little something goes a long way.
So don’t wait till your collagen gets too stiff. For if you can get going, and make improvements in both strength and resistance to injury, you will find you are more supple and flexible Even old collagen stretches, and the best way to get both strength and flexibility is by using a joint through its fullest range of motion.
And unlike a mouse, the neurological benefits will not only enable you to run the wheel of life, work and play. It will also enhance the ability to think, reason and relate to others. What are you waiting for?