“I’m too old to bother with exercise.”
“It’s too late now anyway.”
“There’s no point now, I should have done it decades ago.”
A lot of people tend to treat physical exercise as something reserved for young people. It’s similar to how many people view studying and education as something that’s for school and college only. Of course, in both cases, that’s usually wrong.
Like mental exercises, physical ones also don’t have any age restrictions. Yes, it’s better if we start taking care of our bodies as soon as possible but the saying “Better late than never.” fully applies to physical fitness.
This was further proven by a study in the Frontiers in Physiology journal. Conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Birmingham in the UK, the study compared the ability of people from various ages to build up muscle mass. The study specifically focused on people over 60 years of age who have been exercising at least twice a week for the past 20 years, and people who haven’t.
The participants in the study had to go through two separate muscle biopsies. The first was conducted 48 hours before consuming an isotope drink and going through a weight training session, and the second – right after that. This allowed the researchers to see how proteins were metabolized in people’s muscles.
The results? Both groups of people had identical muscle build-up responses to the exercise.
“Our study clearly shows that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been a regular exerciser throughout your life: You can still derive benefit from exercise whenever you start,” said Leigh Breen, Ph.D., a lecturer at the university and a lead researcher on the study. He also added that “Obviously a long-term commitment to good health and exercise is the best approach to achieve whole-body health, but even starting later on in life will help delay age-related frailty and muscle weakness.”
This doesn’t mean that age or previous routine exercise don’t matter
Of course, age is not irrelevant. Younger people will have overall better health, allowing them to start with more intensive exercises. Plus, the sooner we start taking care of our fitness, the more future health problems we can avoid.
The same goes for people who’ve already been exercising for years. The study conclusively showed that elderly people who had been exercising for years had an overall better fitness, endurance, and strength.
However, all this doesn’t change the fact that people synthesized protein at the same rates, regardless of age or previous fitness history. This means that while you may have to start with some light exercise first to build up your strength, the overall benefit you can get from them will be the same.
How does exercise work?
This is a rather broad subject but to put it simply – when a physical stimulus is applied to our bodies, they release two proteins to help our muscles contract. The two proteins are actin and myosin, and as the study determined, they are released at equal rates regardless of age.
Actin filaments are responsible for a lot of types of cell movements, not only in our muscles. Myosins, on the other hand, can be viewed as “molecular motors” – that’s the protein that converts chemical energy into mechanical energy.
As Jamie Hickey, a personal trainer from Pennsylvania puts it, “The process of building muscle begins the second that you ask your muscles to do something challenging and unfamiliar, whether that’s picking up a dumbbell, performing a pushup, or sprinting on a treadmill.”
When described, the whole muscle-building process sounds woefully unsuitable for older people. Exercise, as well as any other physical stress, damages our muscle cells and fibers. And when our body repairs them, it makes them a bit bigger than they were before because the physical stress has “informed” it that we need bigger muscles for next time.
So, yes, technically physical exercise damages our muscles. And yet, regardless of age, our bodies always benefit from that.
“In the beginning weeks of starting a new workout routine, the majority of strength gains aren’t actually a result of this muscle protein synthesis and hypertrophy. Rather, they are a result of the body’s neurological system learning when and how to fire the needed muscle cells,” Hickey added.
This is easy to notice when you try some hand-synchronized exercises like bench pressing. The first several times you attempt them, your arms will likely be out of sync. This will cause the weights to sway and will drastically reduce your effectiveness. However, after a while, your body will learn where you need more strength and will adjust your muscle build-up accordingly.
Knowing your pre-existing conditions and personal specifics is crucial
Our muscles may not care about our age but other parts of our bodies do. Many mid-aged or older people – especially those with poor physical fitness – suffer from various conditions and ailments. This does make exercise a bit more complicated, however, it also makes it even more important. Ironically, we do have a tendency to use such physical problems as an excuse not to exercise.
The answer to such predicaments is simple – get to know your body and its specifics, and use professional help.
There are various types of testing one can employ. From full genetic testing to determine your body’s genetic predispositions and fitness potential and injury prevention to standard medical tests and consultations to ascertain your current shape. Once you’ve got a clear picture of your body’s current capabilities, contacting a professional trainer is advisable.
A good fitness instructor, especially one who specialized in working with middle-aged or older people, should be able to help you craft the perfect physical regimen for your needs and conditions. Many people won’t need it and will be able to make do even on their own, of course. However, even in those cases, a couple of initial consultations with a trained professional can still be hugely beneficial – they can help you plan out your fitness routine and instruct you how to exercise safely and effectively.
Endurance vs resistance training
You’ve decided to start exercising – now the question is what should you do?
The two basic categories of physical exercises are endurance and resistance training. Endurance training involves aerobic and cardio exercises such as jogging, running, biking, or swimming. Resistance training, on the other hand, is focused on muscle building and includes weightlifting and other strengthening exercises.
What we talked above generally focused on muscle build-up and goes to show that even older people can benefit greatly from resistance training. Endurance exercises are still a great choice for a lot of people, however. Additionally, both have been shown to be great for similar aspects of our health too.
Endurance exercises are a well-known godsent for maintaining good heart and cardiovascular health, for example. A study in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal shows weightlifting even just for half an hour once a week reduces the risk of a stroke or a heart attack with 40 to 70%. The study looked at data of 12,591 participants in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study and their exercise history and cardiovascular health.
Duck-Chul Lee, a Ph.D. associate professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University and a lead researcher in the study explains it like this:
“Resistance exercise using body weight such as push-ups and sit-ups is another way. However, getting a gym membership would be an effective way to do resistance exercise with more choices of different types of exercise.”
He also states that, for older adults, the benefits of weight lifting and muscle strength build-up extend far beyond just cardiovascular health.
“Resistance exercise is specifically important for older adults not only for their cardiovascular health, but also for their bone health, physical function, independence, and quality of life,” he sums up.
In essence, both endurance and resistance training have their benefits for people of all ages and all fitness backgrounds. It’s normal for people specializing in each of the two fields to recommend their field over the other which can make choosing between them difficult. The best choice will usually be made based on your personal health conditions and history, as well as your personal preferences.
Whatever you do, start simple and easy
Whichever route your choose, and whether you decide to work with a professional trainer or not, most specialists agree that you should start with simple and light exercises.
Morgan Nolte is a Ph.D. specialist in geriatric physical therapy from Nebraska and she explains it like this:
“Many adults just don’t know where to start with strength training or exercise in general. They know it’s good for them but are fearful of getting hurt, especially if they have a preexisting condition — which is common in older adults — like high blood pressure, back pain, or a joint replacement.”
It’s also worth noting that physical exercise can seem daunting and frightening at first. It can be as stressful to our psyche as it is to our bodies. That’s another reason to start with simple and straightforward exercises to build your confidence and routine.
“Keep it simple,” said Masiello, a trainer and co-founder of Focus Personal Training Institute in New York City. “Many people feel overwhelmed that they don’t know what to do, or don’t have the time, so they don’t do anything at all. They do not have to spend an hour in the gym, do a host of complicated exercises, or purchase complicated fitness trackers.”
In short, don’t be afraid that you’re too old to start exercising. Yes, you probably won’t reach the physical heights you could have if you had started sooner. And yes, it’s a tad more complicated as you’ll need to take into account your physical condition and health. However, old age itself doesn’t affect the process of building up muscle mass and it doesn’t stop you from getting into shape.