Working Out After Age 50: What’s Best?

Gym-Equipment-1Though I’ve been an avid walker (and sometime runner), I had never set foot in a gym a day in my life, until I did so for the first time at age 56. Sure, I had walked or driven past many gyms in storefronts, with the line-ups of people running on treadmills or flopping around on the elliptical machines.

Frankly, they were frightening. My first time in the gym, it was overwhelming. My son is afraid of spiders. I’m not, but walking through the gym for the first time, looking at all the spindly machines with the stacks of weights, it looked like I was walking into some kind of infestation. How do you even begin to contemplate what to do with all that stuff?

More specifically, back to the topic of this blog post, what’s the best kind of exercise to do after age 50?

The short answer might be: “the exercise that you do”. A somewhat longer answer will be, strength training has particular benefits you can’t get from cardio, cardio has particular benefits that you can’t get from strength training, and the beneficial effects of the two seem to cancel each other out.

That is, on a surface level, strength training puts on weight that hinders your endurance, and cardio tends to draw down muscular gains.

The big question is, how do you navigate this gulf?

I don’t yet have all the right answers – ha ha – that’s why this is still a big question. One consideration is that at this age, you’re not looking to become world-class in either endurance or strength training. Another short answer might be “it depends on where your goals lie”, and to a larger degree, this is correct.

But there we have to take another step back. “If I want to be healthy into old age, what should my goals be?”

At this point in my life, it’s an easy question to answer. My kids have talked me into running a Tough Mudder race with them, and so for most of this year, that settles it. Training for a Tough Mudder event, I have to be cognizant of both.

That’s why I’ve turned to Alex Viada’s “The Hybrid Athlete”. For younger people, it’s nothing to train for an Iron Man. The challenge, as Viada puts it,

For many years it has been widely accepted in the athletic and fitness communities that strength and endurance are physiologically opposed to one another and therefore, cannot be simultaneously trained and developed. Strength athletes and bodybuilders believe endurance work weakens them and strips them of their precious muscle mass. Endurance athletes believe strength work will add unnecessary weight from increased muscle and slow them down. (From The Hybrid Athlete, ©2015 Alex Viada and Juggernaut Training Systems, from the Foreword.)

It still doesn’t say what’s the best way to train for older age. The authors of “Younger Next Year” seem to draw the line at 45 minutes of exercise, six days a week:

One simple rule to learn (and follow when all else fails) before you get lost or bored or decide to go have a drink. It goes like this: Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life (emphasis in original). Sorry, but that’s it. No negotiations. No give. No excuses. Six days, serious exercise, until you die. Well, if you’re still in your forties and stretched to the breaking point with work, kids and travel, we can talk about four or five days, but six is much better even then. And after age fifty, six is mandatory. By then the tide is starting to pick up, and you need help staying off the rocks. In fact, my version of the rule would have been “Exercise hard six days a week,” but Harry convinced me that that would scare the horses. (Crowley, Chris; Lodge, Henry S., Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond (pp. 49-50). Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.)

But here is the key: following “Rule Number One” “gives you the strength, the optimism, and the flexibility” to do everything else you want to do in life.

This brings you to another one of those paradoxes. I don’t yet know all the answers about “what kind of exercise” or “how much to exercise”, but with respect to strength training, three to four days a week is enough, and more than enough, not only “to exercise” but “to train”. And that leaves another three days to go. There’s a difference here, too.

It works out nicely: three days of strength training, three days of cardio. A couple of key rules of thumb that I might add are: Don’t overdo it. Don’t get hurt. “The one who fights and runs away lives to fight another day”. If there’s anything at all that I know, that’s what it comes down to.

Fit at 57, and I hope to be “Younger Next Year”

quality-of-life-chartsThe authors of the “Younger Next Year” books offer two life paths for those in their 50s and 60’s and beyond. “Chart 1” and “Chart 2” here represent those two different paths.

The first is how life goes without exercise. The forces of aging contribute to a steady decline until death. The second chart represents life with a sensible path of exercise. The reasons for this are becoming medically clearer: when you exercise, your muscles generate a particular growth hormone that “tidies up” your whole body. It fights and even reverses the forces of decay that tend to lead to what we think of as a typical path to old age.

The program they recommend involves about 45 minutes of exercise a day, six days a week. That may be daunting, but as with anything, it’s more important to start, without overdoing it. You may not be able to go out and walk for an hour. Maybe even doing that would cripple you for the next week. If that’s the case, if your first sixty minutes comes in the form of six daily 10-minute walks, that’s fine.

Here is why you should get started:

… let us have a candid moment. We are deadly serious. The stakes here— the potential changes in the rest of your life— are enormous. Think about the following numbers for a minute: … over 50 percent of all illness and injuries in the last third of your life can be eliminated by changing your lifestyle in the way we suggest. Not delayed until you’re a little older. Eliminated! Along with all the misery, expense and lost joy that goes with being seriously sick or badly hurt. You may want to think about that for a minute. You may also want to think about the fact that 70 percent of premature death is lifestyle-related. “Premature” means before you’re deep in your eighties.

Crowley, Chris; Lodge, Henry S. Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond (pp. 7-8). Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

Even more important, for me, is [the fact] that some 70 percent of the “normal” decay associated with aging— the weakness, the sore joints, the lousy balance, the feeling crappy— 70 percent of that horror can be forestalled almost until the end [of your life]. That is a huge difference. I had some interludes of normal aging in my life, when my joints hurt so much that regular walking was painful and I looked for the cutout in the curb so I wouldn’t have to step up three inches to get on the sidewalk. Think about that. Think about being so puny that you have to rock just a little to get out of a normal armchair. That stuff happens. It will happen to you. It really, really will. And it doesn’t have to.

Crowley, Chris; Lodge, Henry S. Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond (p. 8). Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

This book goes into great detail about the emerging science to show how all of this works. I highly recommend it.