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  • Writer's pictureMary Brooking

Take control: exercise impacts how we age

Ageing changes our bodies, we all know that. The great news is that exercise can have a massive impact on reducing many of the effects of ageing. Including high intensity exercise and strength/resistance training into our routines are key as we age to reduce the rate of loss of both muscle mass and aerobic capacity. Keep making hard sessions hard, don’t dial back the intensity with age! Older bodies do need more recovery time though, so make every third week a recovery week and give yourself 2 easy days between every hard workout whereas previously you may have bounced back quicker.

So what are the changes?

- Reduction in maximum heart rate

- Reduction in maximum rate of oxygen consumption (VO2 max) or aerobic capacity

- Body composition changes; sarcopenia or loss of muscle mass, sometimes weight gain from increased adipose or fatty tissue from 45-65

- Changing hormone levels; reduction in level of human growth hormone and sex hormones; testosterone and oestrogen

- Reduction in bone density

- Height reduction due to disc compression and changing posture

When do they start?

Generally changes start from about the age of 30 and on average decrease by approximately 1% per year from then: this applies to the average reduction in maximum rate of oxygen consumption or VO2max and maximum heart rate which are key endurance performance drivers, and changes in levels of human growth hormone, vital for muscle building and repair. Sex hormones also boost muscle building and repair: Testosterone levels decline about 1-2% per year from 40 onwards, whilst oestrogen levels fall during peri-menopause. Bone density decreases from approximately age 40, with rapid falls in women from menopause onwards as oestrogen reduces.

Can we take control? Yes!

High intensity training

Greater activity, particularly high intensity training leads to a reduction in the rate of decrease of heart rate and aerobic capacity (VO2max), it can reduce the rate of decrease to approximately 0.5% a year meaning that performance can be retained for longer. Make these high intensity sessions short but purposeful. Hill efforts and intervals are really beneficial, as part of a varied mix of workouts. Try to have a session which reaches at least 90% of aerobic capacity once a week, and another which reaches 80%, with recovery sessions at 50% rather than always being at a steady 70%.

Get stronger!

Strength and resistance training combats ageing related loss of muscle mass and retains power. Keeping muscles strong and balanced round our joints is hugely helpful to reduce joint stress and prevent injuries, particularly important as high intensity activity places high loads on our bodies. If you have never done strength training as a younger person this is the one change its essential to make and include in your training as you age.

Recovering will take longer

Give yourself more recovery time. A training programme that might be an ideal for a 25 year old could be an overtraining for a 50 year old. Give yourself 2 easy days after each hard session and a recovery week after every 2 training weeks where previously you may have had a recovery week after every three training weeks and only one day of rest after a hard session.

Good post exercise nutrition with a mix of carbs and protein help the body’s production of human growth hormone, facilitating recovery and repair post exercise.

Strength training, walking and running are great for improving bone density through the impact effect.

Complex movements involved in sport improve co-ordination and proprioception.

Are there gender differences?

Women on average start with lower muscle volume than men so the ageing impact of muscle loss often seems to have a bigger impact on women, an impact accelerated at menopause. However women have a superpower; they lose less aerobic or endurance capacity than men with ageing! The impact of peri-menopause/the menopause is a huge topic, but one where knowledge is key to continuing to perform through menopause and beyond. More on this in another blog coming soon….

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