I recently learned that in 1799, life expectancy for pretty much everyone on Earth – regardless of social status, gender or wealth – was 40 years. Compare that with today’s statistics – 83 years in Canada, 73 years worldwide – and you can’t help but feel an overwhelming appreciation for all that science and technology has done for humankind.
But while medical advances and industrial enterprise have helped much of society live longer, easier, more fulfilling lives, this extended existence isn’t a free ride on Easy Street. Preventative maintenance in the form of physical activity and exercise is still required, or else the organic meat sack that we call our body can break down in any number of ways.
So when The Globe and Mail asked readers to share their most pressing fitness questions, I was happy to see so many ask about exercising as we age. Here’s my advice:
Resistance training matters
If aging has a nemesis, its name is “sarcopenia.” This is the fancy scientific name given to the involuntary loss of muscle mass that naturally occurs as we grow older. Sarcopenia begins to set in at around 30, at which point humans lose anywhere from three to five per cent of their muscle mass annually. After 60, the decline is even more pronounced.
Even if you have zero intention of competing as a bodybuilder, this information should scare you some. Sarcopenia increases the likelihood of falls, and also the likelihood that your body will suffer serious damage in the process. Not only that, but as muscle mass decreases, fat mass increases, a combination that can lead to type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and osteoporosis.
Scientists don’t know exactly why our muscles start to wither away at such a young age, but there is ample evidence to suggest that resistance training is the best remedy. And the prescription is the same for all but the most competitive of athletes: two to four sessions of total-body resistance training on a weekly basis, with each session lasting between 20 to 60 minutes. You can join a gym, hire a trainer, find some classes or online programs – it doesn’t matter how you do it, just find a method you don’t hate and stick with it.
Mobility training also matters
Being able to express your body’s fullest range of motion, and having the confidence to move in and out of challenging positions, is just as important as preserving muscle mass.
Some pros argue that, when done properly, lifting weights itself is a form of mobility training. I don’t disagree, but it’s the “done properly” part that gives me pause. Most people don’t even know how to walk properly, let alone lift weights.
Mobility training allows us to learn about and reconnect with our bodies in a low-risk environment, and 10 to 15 minutes a day is all it takes. Yoga provides a great avenue for this. Another method that’s becoming popular incorporates what’s called “controlled articular rotations,” or CARs for short. For some excellent examples of joint-specific and total-body CAR routines, just enter the term on YouTube.
Cardio training matters, too
The final component of training for a long, prosperous life is as simple as a stroll around the block. Or maybe it’s a jog, a bike ride, or a hard hike through the wilderness. My point is, despite popular depictions, cardio training need not be a torturous slog on treadmills and the like.
I’ll even go a step further and state for the record that unless you plan on entering the Boston Marathon, a detailed cardio training program probably isn’t necessary. Aiming for 10,000 steps a day, on top of engaging with the outdoor world on as frequent a basis as possible, is often enough for maintaining a solid baseline of health. That is, of course, unless you love cardio, in which case I say have it. Just make sure to leave room for resistance training too.
Don’t forget about lifestyle
A constant source of professional annoyance is how fitness and health information is typically presented in an age- and gender-specific manner. I see how this can be helpful for the sake of creating an organized framework, but in my experience this sort of categorization causes more confusion than anything else. It doesn’t matter how old we are or which bathroom we choose to use: Across every demographic, our physical needs have more in common than not.
I offer up this preface because the lifestyle factors that aging adults need to account for are often no different than the ones that affect kids, teens and young adults. Seniors need the same seven to nine hours of nightly sleep as everyone else. Seniors need to eat a balanced diet that emphasizes lean protein, whole grains, fibre and health fats … just like everyone else.
Of course there are certain challenges unique to different age groups. The hormonal changes caused by menopause, for example, are very different than the ones caused by puberty or pregnancy. But for the most part, Canada’s basic guidelines for physical activity and healthy eating cover all the bases.
If you have fitness questions for Paul Landini, send them to Audience@globeandmail.com
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.
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