Regardless of age, I think it can be agreed upon that sleep, exercise, and nutrition are the cornerstones to health and physical well-being. There is an abundance of literature and research supporting the notion that if we neglect any of these three, our risk of morbidity and mortality increases. None of this is rocket science; however, it does take a level of commitment to develop habits which support getting enough quality sleep, eating nutritious foods the majority of the time (think the 80-20 rule), and accruing adequate exercise, on a daily or weekly basis, for a myriad of health benefits – with consistency being key.
Biologically, we hit our peak fitness capacity quite young. It is somewhat depressing that even the most trained elite athletes experience some decline in performance after the age of 30. For example, competitive weightlifting ability has been shown to decline 1% to 1.5% per year, until the age of 70 where even larger losses are then seen (Haff & Triplett, 2016). Therefore, anyone in their thirties and above should be cognizant of incorporating a variety of methods (i.e. adequate sleep, sound nutrition, and daily physical activity) to slow down the process of aging.
As we age, everyone wants to be able to maintain a pain-free existence with the least number of physical limitations possible. The fitness goals of a thirty-year-old will obviously be different than an 85-year-old, but they probably both want to live while experiencing little or no pain, remaining independent, and being able to participate in activities that bring them joy.
Cardio? Weights? Yoga?
When it comes to exercise, you might be asking, what is the best type of exercise so I can successfully age? Should I do cardio or weights? What about Yoga, Pilates, or perhaps Tai Chi? Maybe you dislike the gym setting and only like to play in some form of organized sport. Does everything count?
The short answer is they ALL help. Any form of physical activity, or fitness, is going to help reduce the effects of aging, decrease our risk of disease, and hopefully increase our quality of life and, thus, our lifespans. If you tend to lean more towards cardiovascular exercise (i.e. running, biking, walking, cross-country skiing, swimming, etc.) you will be strengthening your cardiovascular (i.e. heart and lungs) fitness. On the other hand, if you prefer to do strength training (i.e. resistance training) activities (i.e. weight training, gymnastics, rock climbing, etc.) you will be strengthening your muscles and bones, predominantly. Yoga and Pilates are great for building relative bodyweight strength along with flexibility and mobility. As you can see, all forms of exercise provide unique benefits, but they all contribute to staying injury-free and offsetting age-related setbacks.
Doing a relatively balanced combination of cardio exercise, resistance training, and flexibility/mobility exercise is the ultimate programming strategy for a well-rounded fitness program. At any age, we all can benefit from systematically challenging our bodies in multiple capacities to become stronger, fitter, and more resilient.
A Hypothetical Example
Let’s walk through an example: a person may walk or run several times per week, resistance train a couple times per week, and do some stretches and mobility exercises every day before bed. Overall, they’re doing great – they’re incorporating different forms of exercise that will certainly provide them with more energy throughout the day, and hopefully help them maintain an active, high-quality lifestyle.
Let’s also imagine this person walks or runs the same route every time at the same speed on the same days of the week, they perform the exact same mobility stretches each day, and have been doing the same resistance training routine (same exercises, with the same weight or load, and same number of reps and sets) for several years. Although their fitness routine is varied by the modality of exercise, they are not placing enough novel stress, or new demands on the body, to stimulate positive adaptations.
The principle of overload states that the body needs to receive some form of physiological stress at a higher level than it is used to for a desired training adaptation to occur (Haff & Triplett, 2016). Therefore, in this scenario, the body would be more than well adapted to the static physiological demands and thus, would not need to become stronger or fitter in any capacity. The body’s skin, fascia, muscles, and bones would not be positively adapting, nor becoming more resilient.
Variability is the Key
In regards to strength training, constantly changing the loads (i.e. the amount of weight being lifted or resistance being provided) assigned in the exercises, increasing the number of sessions per week, adding new exercises or more sets, changing the exercises completely, decreasing the length of rest between exercises and/or sets, or any combination could produce a new and novel demand on the body; therefore, encouraging a positive adaptation (like building more muscle and bone!).
When considering cardiovascular training, the same principle can be applied. Increasing the number of cardio sessions per week, changing the intensity (for example, a long and slower distance one day and a higher intensity but shorter duration the next), and changing the overall total volume accrued over a given week can all lead to greater stress on the body; therefore, encouraging a positive adaptation (like a stronger heart and better oxygen carrying capacity!).
In short, the best word to describe the above suggestions is VARIABILITY! The more varied your physical activity or training sessions are in respect to frequency, duration, intensity, and exercise selection, the more the body must adapt and hence, the more robust you are going to be when facing physical demands.
Daily Living Demands
Every day we are all constantly asking our bodies to move in all directions, often times in ‘odd-positions’, without much thought to it. Picture a parent carrying his or her child in one arm while holding a bag of groceries in the other hand, and also holding the phone up against his or ear with their shoulder. Or, getting in and out of the car when someone has parked too close and you have to squeeze in, or trying to grab something off a high-shelf and reaching up on your tippy toes with one arm stretched up as high as possible. The list goes on and on.
An Exercise Example
The examples mentioned above illustrate how daily living requires our body to move in variable directions, with variable loads (i.e. weight), and at variable speeds (sometimes slower and sometimes fast!).
Here is an example of how you could include variability with exercise selection for someone looking to increase muscle mass (i.e. hypertrophy) for the chest muscles:
One large circuit, performed 2 to 4 times, with the following four exercises:
- Dumbbell Chest Press (5-8 reps with a heavy load, tempo of slow and controlled)
- Spiderman Push-ups (10+ reps with bodyweight only)
- Toner Band or Cable Machine Lateral Lunge with Single Arm Chest Fly (8-12 reps with moderate load)
- Bear Crawls for 60 seconds (bodyweight only, moving moderate to fast)
As seen in the above exercise circuit, the more our training or fitness program can incorporate variability, the more resilient and injury-proof our body is going to be. Moving in multiple planes, with different loads, and at different speeds will help our skin, fascia, muscles, and bones all positively adapt to help bulletproof our body. Furthermore, if we incur fewer injuries over our lifespans and accrue more physical activity that varies over time, ultimately, we will improve our chances to age successfully.
The next time you go to exercise, think about how you can change it up to further challenge your body and help keep it strong, resilient, and young!
Haff, G., and Triplett, T. (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, Fourth Edition. Champaign: Human Kinetics.