Thursday, July 28, 2005

Fitness After 50: We Have Only Two Choices

28 July 2005

As a long-time fitness buff, inspired by Kenneth Cooper's early writings in the 1960's, I thought I was in shape at the beginning of this year because I had been running for 35 years, and I had increased my distance for a typical run from 1.5 to 5 miles over that time.

I was wrong.

After reading (actually listening to the CD set of) Younger Next Year (http://www.youngernextyear.com/) by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, I was forced to acknowledge the error of my ways.

You see, I was also sedentary virtually all the time that I was not exercising, and I was getting muscularly weak and increasingly stiff and inflexible.

Fortunately, I had to go no further than my wife for fitness advice, as she is a professional fitness trainer. On February 25, 2005, she started me on a 50-minute every other day program that has restored my strength and flexibility to match my already well-developed aerobic fitness. It is quite different to address these three areas of physical fitness simultaneously than one at a time!

What have I learned?

Don't stop the aerobics, and maintain some diversity to forestall injury or aggravation. We also do biking, kayaking, hiking, and maybe elliptical training on very cold winter days.

Strength training is about a balanced approach to all muscle groups – I follow a chest, back, shoulders, abdominal, biceps, triceps, small muscles sequence. Two exercises for each group, every other day, seem quite satisfactory for an individual who is not training for competitive events!

Core strength and stability is the watchword of the 21st century. It is necessary to complement large muscle strength with well-developed abdominal, trunk and lower back muscle strength. Almost every movement we do every day involves these core muscles as well as the large muscles of our chest, upper back and limbs. One muscle group – and one type of training, should not be out of proportion to the others!

Stretching means you can use the muscles you are developing. If you can’t bend or stretch, then developing muscular strength is of little practical utility. The axiom, use it or lose it, applies very much here.

The balanced practice of all three exercise types promotes a general feeling of psychological well-being, for which there is no substitute available through psychological wisdom or detached analysis, no matter how insightful. Our minds work best when nestled within strong, fit and healthy bodies.

Why is strength training practiced every other day? There are two muscle types. The slow twitch “aerobic” muscles recover in 24 hours. The fast twitch “strength” muscles need 48 hours to bounce back. Overtraining breaks these tissues down without allowing the body to restore itself – then we have defeated the purpose of our exercise program, whcih follows a rhythm of planned moderate stress and of sufficient time allowed for recovery.

What happens if we don't train? Crowley and Lodge emphasize the steady drip of the self-digesting cytokine 6 (interleukin) biochemical pathway. If we don't counteract that process by activating the (somewhat metaphorical) cytokine 10 pathway, then we abandon our bodies to self-orchestrated weakening, decay and disease.

At the cellular level, we remain creatures of the savannah – hunter/gatherers for whom an active day means there will be further food and activity, and for whom an inactive day means that we must conserve and withdraw, storing up fat, and digesting our own bodies for nutrients, to await better opportunities. Our brains may know that we are secure, but our cells interpret inactivity as failure and crisis, and respond accordingly – choreographing a dance of planful self-destruction.

Thus, there are only two choices available after age 50 : be inactive and decay – very rapidly, or be active and grow "younger next year."

(See my more recent posting on this topic here.)

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