Physical & Mental Age-Related Declines Are NOT Inevitable
Aging isn’t a sexy topic to discuss. Most people would rather talk about grammatical structure, fossil fuels, the Dewey Decimal system, or anything else, really, that doesn’t have to do with age. After all, aging is largely associated with falling apart, wasting away, breaking down, and becoming a shell of one’s former self.
There are the alarming numbers about fall rates, like how 70% of older adults aged 70+ will die as a result of a fall, or how the United States is projected to have 7 deaths from falling per hour in 2030. There are the cognitive declines, hormonal drops, and psychological problems. Tack on the exponentially increased risks of suffering from heart disease, cancer, dementia, and a myriad of other issues, and it’s almost as if there’s a ticking time bomb waiting to prey on anyone who enters a new decade after 40.
Granted, the topics of fall prevention, cognitive health, and chronic sickness aren’t at the top of most gym-goers’ priority list, but what about the “normal” physical declines – like muscle atrophy, strength loss, fat gain, and joint pain (among others) – that are allegedly bound to occur?
Most people chalk up these declines as a normal a part of aging, assuming that it’s only a matter of time until they’re replacing their training sessions with games of Bingo and yelling at kids to get off their lawn. But do we have more control over our quality of life, and our physical capacities than we think?
Bigger, Stronger and HEALTHIER Every Year, FOREVER
Here’s the truth: these age-related declines are NOT inevitable. In fact, a handful of research has suggested that almost all of these qualities slide notbecause of age, but rather due to the disuse of the neuromuscular system. In other words, the old adage, “use it or lose it,” is spot on.
Moreover, it’s been shown that virtually every trainable physical quality can be improved – let alone maintained – with age. Even for those who have put their health on the backburner for decades, essentially all of the negative consequences that result from inactivity and poor lifestyle habits can be offset and quite literally reversed by getting back on track.
It’s time to flip the narrative. The question isn’t if you can stay strong and healthy as you age, but rather how to do so year after year. Aging presents some challenges, sure, but who’s to say that you can’t make your 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s your best years yet?
Listed below are the most prominent physical and mental qualities that are said to decline with age: strength, muscle mass, power, locomotion, mobility, and cognition. Within each section is a list of what these “normal” declines look like, why they matter, why they’re far from inevitable, and – most importantly – how to fight back.
#1 Strength & Muscle Mass
In the simplest of terms, strength is the ability to exert force. It’s what enables humans to lift big weights, function throughout daily life, and move their body freely and without risk. Likewise, muscle mass is like the body’s “armor,” so to speak, in that it prevents the skeletal structure (bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, etc.) from collapsing like a pile of Jenga blocks any time it encounters load. Considering that muscle mass is a primary contributor to strength and vice versa, it goes without saying that both qualities go hand-in-hand.
Statistics on Age Related Decline
Most studies seem to suggest that strength and muscle mass can begin to dip as early as age 30 – between 3-8% per decade – before spiraling further downward once an individual hits 50, at which point the losses may exceed 40% and 15% (respectively) every decade thereafter (1,2,3). At that pace, a 30-year old male with 180 pounds of lean muscle may lose up to 30 pounds of muscle mass before reaching age 50, followed by an additional 50 pound drop between the ages of 50-70 (with 2-3x greater losses in strength, no less).
As outrageous as that sounds, those numbers aren’t far off the norm; some studies have found that many individuals may lose as much as 50% of their muscle mass and up to 90% of their strength between the ages of 35-75 (4).
Why Strength & Muscle Mass Matters
In the context of training, it goes without saying that strength and muscle are the cornerstones of performance, body composition, and injury prevention/reduction. What gets glossed over quite often, however, is that having adequate strength and muscle (or a lack thereof) can be the literal difference between life and death.
One study of over 150,000 individuals found that grip strength was a stronger predictor of all-cause mortality than systolic blood pressure, and that each 11 pound decrease in grip strength was linked to a 16% higher risk of all-cause mortality, a 17% higher rate of dying from heart disease, and a 7% higher risk of suffering from a heart attack (5). A similar study found that individuals with below-average grip strength were 50% more likely to die earlier than their stronger peers, which led the researchers to conclude that “muscle weakness is a serious public health concern”(6).
Granted, grip strength is just an indicator of overall strength, but the key point is that stronger and more muscular people are healthier – and significantly harder to kill – than those who are weak and frail.
Why Losing Muscle & Strength Is NOT Inevitable
Like most physical qualities, strength and muscle mass don’t decline due to age; they decline because most people pick up hobbies like knitting or scrapbooking instead of fighting back.
In looking at strength, one meta-analysis examined 47 studies of individuals over the age of 50 and found that, after 17.6 weeks of strength training (on average), the average increases in upper and lower body strength were 49% and 62%, respectively (7). In looking at muscle mass, a separate meta-analysis demonstrated that older adults who perform full-body strength training can experience a “significant increase” in lean muscle, with one study even showing increases by 13.5% in individuals aged 90 and older (8,9).
Granted, that’s not to say that everyone will be bench pressing 4 bills and competing in bodybuilding shows at the age of 90, but the premise remains clear. Losing strength and muscle mass isn’t a byproduct of aging; it’s a consequence of disuse.
How To Get Bigger & Stronger As You Age
The jury’s out: for all things related to health and longevity – and everything else, for that matter– there’s nothing as important as possessing high levels of strength and muscle mass. That’s why, according to one analysis, adults over the age of 65 who strength train at least twice per week have “46% lower odds of death for any reason” than those who do not (10). To echo the words of Dr. Rusin, “Strength training can literally reverse the aging process. Now that’s longevity.”
- Train all six foundational movement patterns (according to your specific needs)
By and large, training is as simple as executing the six foundational movement patterns that humans are designed to perform: squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, and carry. Doing so won’t only yield the most dramatic results for strength, performance, and muscle gains; it’ll also maximize long-term orthopedic health and wellness.
Above all else, the key is to take a pragmatic approach by focusing on the movements themselves – not on particular exercises – in order to train according to your specific needs and physical presentation. That means choosing the “best” exercises within each pattern that you can perform pain-free, executing them masterfully, and getting brutally strong while building up your resilience.
It doesn’t matter where you start or what you can currently do; what matters is that you work with what you have in order to develop, master, and subsequently load each fundamental movement pattern with success.
- Embrace “functional strength”
To piggyback on the previous point, training in a “functional” manner in order to build functional strength is pivotal for health and longevity. Why? Bosu ball jokes aside, functional training is nothing more than training that has a direct carryover to one’s life and/or athletic endeavors.
As it relates to exercise selection and program design, training to become functionally strong means owning all six movement patterns while developing well-rounded strength beyond the big three lifts. That’s not to say that the big three are bad by any means, but rather that the following points of focus should be at the forefront of most people’s minds:
- Master the squat and hinge patterns
- Become adept at handling your bodyweight (e.g., push-ups, chin-ups)
- Pull at least twice as much as you push
- Develop single-leg strength and stability
- Become efficient at moving through space with and without load
- Prioritize ground-to-standing transitions (e.g., Turkish get-ups)
- Implement intensity, but do so wisely
To get big and strong, employing progressive overload in some way, shape, or form is absolutely necessary. This is especially true as it relates to training later in life, as both of the aforementioned meta-analyses found that the highest intensities (relative to 1-RMs) led to the greatest increases in strength and muscle size.
That being said, intensity needs to be contextualized and respected, lest you wind to wind up with cranky joints and shoulders shred up like coleslaw. Like Dr. Rusin’s P4 system entails, the key is to push the intensity with performance-based indicator lifts, then follow it up with supplementary work (the “pump”) performed within a myriad of rep ranges to build muscle and attack weak links. For more on how to train and/or coach others to yield pain-free strength and muscle gains, I highly recommend checking out Functional Power Training and Functional Hypertrophy Training.
Whereas strength is the ability to exert force, power is the ability to exert force quickly, or – in physics-speak – force times velocity. The most common examples include sprinting, jumping, and lifting weights explosively, but essentially any movement that’s performed at near-maximal speeds falls under the umbrella of power. To be fair, it’s impossible to be powerful without being strong, but the truth is that it’s entirely possible to be strong without being powerful. Speed, not strength, is the difference maker.
Statistics on Age Related Decline
Strength is the sexy topic for most coaches and gym-goers, which makes sense considering that strength is the foundation for every trainable physical quality. That being said, what often goes unnoticed is that it’s power, not strength, that really bridges the gap between the gym and daily life. Think about it: running, jumping, catching yourself from falling after a slip, or doing virtually anything else that requires you to generate force quickly is almost entirely reliant on power.
Studies show that adults lose power almost twice as fast as strength – 1.7x, to be exact – as they age (11). This rapid drop is primarily due to the fact that as an individual loses muscle mass, the type II “fast-twitch” muscle fibers are the first to go. Since these type II fibers are responsible for absolute strength as well as speed of movement, the result is a direct drop in the ability to exhibit power.
Why Power Training Matters
Like strength and muscle mass, power has been shown to have a direct correlation with longevity. One study aptly titled ‘The Ability to Lift Weights Quickly Can Mean a Longer Life’ followed nearly 4,000 individuals over the course of 6.5 years and found that the participants with above average maximal muscle power had the best survival rates, whereas those who scored in the bottom quarter were 10-13x more likely to die at an earlier age (12).
Losing power with age can also trigger a cascade of negative adaptations in terms of strength, body composition, and overall health and well-being. As you lose the ability to generate power efficiently, your strength – and thus your ability to maintain muscle mass – will inevitably take a huge hit. Combine the negative consequences that accompany a drop in all three qualities, and the results can be catastrophic.
Why Losing Power Is NOT Inevitable
As is the case with strength and muscle mass, the alleged age-related declines in power are entirely reversible. One study saw older adults improve their maximal muscle power by 51% after 12 weeks of “explosive-type heavy-resistance training,” whereas another found that rate of force development and shortening velocity can increase by up to 97% (13,8). Moreover, the type II “fast-twitch” muscle fibers – the ones that are the first to go with age – have the potential to grow in size by up to 67% in older adults, according to an additional study.
How To Get More Powerful As You Age
Ipso facto, training for power isn’t just beneficial; it’s essential. Granted, strength is the foundation of power – meaning, you need to be able to generate force before you can generate force quickly – but strength training in and of itself won’t cut it.
- Spend time moving fast
If you can squat a house but struggle to dunk on a Little Tikes hoop, it’s probably time to place a greater emphasis on moving fast. Whether it’s sprinting, jumping, throwing medicine balls, and/or performing dynamic effort or Olympic lift variations, the key is to ensure that the chosen option(s) can be performed in a pain-free manner to develop power safely and effectively. At the end of the day, the manner in which you train to develop power isn’t as important as the mere act of moving at high velocities.
Generally speaking, the power-based movements incorporated into the sixth phase of the 6-phase dynamic warm-up sequence are more than enough for most individuals. Remember: as is the case with any other exercise, maximal intent and quality should be the primary points of focus, not quantity.
For developing lower body power, the benefits of jumps are a given. What’s often overlooked, however, is the value of the landing component, which builds decelerative, eccentric strength and teaches the lower body how to “put on the brakes.” Landing well not only strengthens the connective tissues in the lower half, but also improves the body’s ability to react and stabilize in response to sudden stimuli. Fall prevention, anyone?
Contrary to what some people may think, it’s been shown that jump training is entirely safe for older adults. One meta-analysis observed 13 different training groups of individuals aged 50+ and found that jumping caused virtually zero injuries (14). It was subsequently concluded that jump training is safe and effective in older adults, which led researchers to adopt the adage that “as soon as you stop jumping, you start dying.”
To implement jumps into your training, plug them into the sixth phase of the 6-phase dynamic warm-up on lower body training days.
- Get outside of the sagittal plane
Whether it’s to chase down a fly ball in a beer league softball game or to stabilize the body in response to an unexpected rotary/lateral stimulus, being able to move with strength, power, and fluidity through the frontal (side-to-side) and transverse (rotational) planes is a must. Beyond its functional application to daily life, training in the frontal and transverse planes is also crucial for training some of the oft-neglected “stabilizer” muscles like the adductors, obliques, and external rotators of the hip, among others.
Aside from lateral jumps, rotational medicine ball throws are hard to beat for developing power outside of the sagittal plane. They teach efficient power transference from the ground-on-up, train the hips and thoracic spine to move through a strong and stable core, and serve as a useful tool to “ingrain” the mobility that’s established in the earlier phases of a warm-up. For more on upper body plyometric progressions, check out ‘Top 17 Upper Body Plyometrics For Speed, Power, & Performance.’
#3 Cardiovascular Health
For the sake of simplicity, cardiovascular health can be thought of as a measure of aerobic capacity, or how well the body can process and deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. As its name suggests, aerobic capacity is a direct reflection of aerobic health, which is (obviously) important considering the numerous responsibilities of the aerobic system. Training aside, the aerobic system not only supports the health and efficiency of the heart (among other roles), but also provides the energy necessary to sustain nearly every type of activity.
Statistics on Age Related Decline
Like any other trait, age-related declines in aerobic capacity are bound to occur in the absence of training. Most studies estimate drops between 3-6% per decade between the ages of 20-40, followed by an accelerated dive of 20% (or more) every decade thereafter (15).
The heart becomes a less efficient pump as these declines occur, which subsequently hinders its ability to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body as quickly. To make matters worse, this drop decreases the amount of time that exercise can be sustained, which can sap training effectiveness and create a vicious snowball effect thereafter.
Why Cardiovascular Health Matters
In the context of training, aerobic capacity can pay huge dividends as it relates to handling more volume, pushing through grueling sets, and recovering faster in the short-term (while training) and long-term (between training days). That being said, aerobic capacity may be even more beneficial from a health and longevity standpoint as improvements in aerobic health spur a number of positive adaptations such as increasing the functional capacity of the heart, increasing the size of the vascular network, triggering the birth of new mitochondria, and optimizing the function of existing mitochondria.
On the flipside, subpar aerobic health has been shown to have a laundry list of negative effects, which – considering that cardiovascular disease is the #1 cause of death globally – is hardly surprising. As if extra research was needed, a group from the University of South Carolina followedmore than 4,000 older adults and found that those who had “low” cardiovascular health were 2.3x more likely to die than those in the “high” category after a 13-year follow up (16).
Why Declining Cardiovascular Health is NOT Inevitable
Even for individuals starting from ground zero, it’s been shown that aerobic capacity has the potential to improve by more than 25% with consistent training which, in the words of one researcher, “would be equivalent to being 10-20 years younger”(17).
Likewise, it’s been shown that aerobic capacity is fairly easy to maintain with age in those who train regularly. One study found that, when training intensity was maintained, there was no difference in aerobic capacity between individuals ranging from 40-72 years in age (18). This led to the conclusion that consistent training is the primary determinant of cardiovascular health, not age.
How To Enhance Cardiovascular Health As You Age
Contrary to what most gym bros believe, cardio won’t steal your gains. In fact, strategically weaving aerobic and anaerobic work into your training can actually amplify improvements in strength and muscle growth. Gains aside, however, cardiovascular training is even more crucial for long-term health and well-being.
- Build an aerobic base
It goes without saying that building a strong aerobic base is absolutely vital for combating the risk of cardiovascular disease, which, as mentioned previously, is the #1 cause of death globally. Beyond that, however, a strong aerobic capacity also creates a foundation to train more effectively, handle more high-intensity work, and generate more ATP for maximal strength work. Since these benefits are obviously crucial for maintaining strength and muscle mass – both of which are paramount to maintain with age – this makes aerobic work a must for both gym-based results and long-term health and longevity.
Going further, low-intensity work also reduces cortisol and drives the body into a parasympathetic rest-and-digest state, which can make a world of a difference for recovery and stress management. Whether it’s a long walk, 20-30 minutes of relatively easy work on a bike, or a light swim (among other options), the key is to make low-intensity aerobic work a priority at least 2-3x per week.
- Supplement with higher intensity anaerobic work
Although anaerobic training is meant to target different energy systems than aerobic training, it’s been shown to facilitate improvements in aerobic capacity just as well as (if not better than) its aerobic counterpart while also improving strength-endurance, sustained power output, and overall training efficiency (19). In other words, anaerobic training improves both aerobic capacity and training effectiveness simultaneously, which is a win-win scenario for fighting back against essentially all age-related declines.
Anaerobic training has also been shown to enhance cognition, increase brain volume, decrease brain inflammation, reduce the risk of many diseases/cancers, and increase mitochondrial function in adults over the age of 65. One study even found that older adults who performed a sprint-interval workout improved their recall of new vocabulary by 20% compared to a control group (20,21).
The downside of high-intensity anaerobic work is that it’s more physically and neurologically taxing, which means it can’t be performed as frequently as aerobic work. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for 1-3 short bouts of anaerobic training per week, either performed briefly after a training session or on a separate day from strength training.
- Find the aerobic-anaerobic “sweet spot”
Although the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are markedly different from a training perspective, what’s important to remember is that the energy systems don’t work in isolation. The key is to appreciate their differences and mesh them intelligently so that they can work synergistically for maximum benefit.
Generally speaking, low-impact aerobic work can be performed more frequently outside of training without consequence (although running may be a different story). As long as it’s offset in a sense with a hefty dose of strength training and some anaerobic training sprinkled in, the likelihood of losing all of your precious muscle mass is virtually non-existent.
Remember: within the context of aging, the primary goal of aerobic and anaerobic training is to improve cardiovascular health, enhance recovery and training effectiveness, and prevent/reduce the likelihood of injury. That’s why finding the “sweet spot” between low-impact aerobic work and high-intensity anaerobic work is pivotal. See: ‘The Lost Art of Conditioning for Strength, Performance & Recovery’ for more on this topic.
#4 Ambulation, Locomotion and Gait
At its core, locomotion refers to any type of movement that involves physical displacement through space. Walking, running, and changing direction are the most common examples, but a handful of gym-based movements like loaded carries and sled pushes can also fall into the locomotive category. Considering that locomotion is the most “functional” movement pattern in existence, its goes without saying that it’s important. What’s equally important, however, is what locomotion represents as a whole, such as an individual’s movement capabilities, motor control, basic strength, full-body function, etc.
Statistics on Age Related Decline
As simple as it sounds, there’s a lot more going on during locomotion than typically meets the eye. Think about it: there’s reciprocal motion at the arms and legs, flexion and extension at the lower body joints, spinal stability (or a lack thereof), and the involvement of the entire pillar complex.
Obviously, these “demands” are hardly demanding; still, the traits required to move efficiently through space are like any other trait in that they’re vulnerable to age-related declines (as fall-related statistics reflect). Losses in balance, for example, have been shownto set in as early as age 25 and ultimately drop by up to 55% once past age 60. Likewise, coordination and proprioception have been shown to take deep dives past the age of 50 (22).
In fact, “gait disorder” has become a legitimate term in reference to faulty locomotive patterns like excessive stance width, an offset pelvis, bad posture, minimal force output, and/or more time spent with both feet on the ground. With these dysfunctions becoming the norm, it’s now estimated that 24% of adults aged 65 and older have to use some sort of mobility aid to get through daily life (23).
Why Ambulation Abilities Matter
Gait speed, one of the primary measures of locomotion in older adults, has been found to have a linear relationship with mortality rates. One meta-analysis found that individuals aged 65 and up who fell onto the faster end of the gait speed spectrum were about 62% more likely to survive than their slower counterparts in a 10-year follow-up. Another study labeled gait speed as the “sixth vital sign” after finding that it was more reflective of health and longevity than blood pressure (24,25).
Plus, moving efficiently and without pain is obviously connected to the ability to partake in physical activity and exercise regularly, which means that locomotive declines accelerate otherwise avoidable losses in strength, muscle mass, and power.
Why Declining Ambulatory Abilities Are NOT Inevitable
As expected, training has been shown to specifically attenuate age-related changes in “functional movement” including improvements in gait speed (by 48%) and static and dynamic balance. Likewise, training blocks of as short as 12 weeks have been shown to reduce the incidence of falling by 22% and significantly improve coordination, motor control, and “gait strength”(8). What’s more, strength training has also been shown to reverse all of the declines in the sensory and muscular systems responsible for proprioception and reactivity, both of which play huge roles in fall prevention.
How To Enhance Ambulation and Mobility As You Age
Locomotion is unique in that it’s not so much a single quality as it is a reflection of multiple qualities manifesting at once. Thus, a well-rounded approach to maximizing the strength and efficiency of the locomotive pattern lies in combining functional strength training with a focus on gait mechanics, core strength, and tri-planar stability.
- Perform loaded carries
In the most primal sense, there’s nothing more representative of gait strength than picking up a heavy load and walking with it. That’s why, among all movements that can be performed in the gym, there’s nothing that can replicate loaded carries for dialing in the gait pattern.
When load and dynamic stability are thrown into the mix, the body has no choice but to instinctively default to near-perfect gait mechanics. The whole foot of each leg is forced to grip the floor aggressively, the feet and ankles must remain steady, and the pillar complex has to remain stacked for added stability. Moreover, loaded carries improve posture – another crucial component of locomotion – by encouraging a neutral spinal position, improving the position of the diaphragm, facilitating thoracic extension, and building dynamic, tri-planar core strength unlike anything else.
To read more about how (and why) you should perform loaded carries, see ’10 Smart Loaded Carry Variations for Safer, More Effective Core Strength.’
- Develop functional core strength
The premise of functional core training is that the core’s primary role is to prevent unwanted movement at the spine in all three planes (extension/flexion, rotation, and lateral flexion) rather than create it. This has value as it relates to putting up big numbers in the gym, but it’s even more important in terms of
- Avoiding catastrophic injury (in the gym or elsewhere) and
- Improving movement quality
Regarding the first point, a strong and stable core creates a foundational base that maximizes the transference of strength and power from the ground-up. Beyond its carryover to the gym, this foundational base is key for maintaining stability in response to unplanned external forces (e.g., remaining upright after getting pushed).
Regarding the second point, the concept of “proximal stability for distal mobility” essentially states that a stronger and more stable core facilitates better and more efficient movement in the upper and lower extremities. In other words, the more stable the core, the more mobile the rest of the body will likely be. Since mobility paired with stability almost always leads to improved full-body function and more efficient movement, functional core strength is vital for effective training and long-term orthopedic health.
- Get strong on one leg
Of course, unilateral training is extremely prevalent in daily life considering that the hips function in a reciprocal manner during locomotion. Going further, however, getting strong on one leg can also work wonders for improving tri-planar stability and strengthening some often-neglected muscles in the lower half, both of which have their benefits as it relates to the gait pattern. As an added bonus, single-leg training has been shown to improve balance by activating the vestibular system, which is responsible for maintaining spatial orientation in response to external forces.
As it relates specifically to training, unilateral exercises are phenomenal for building lower body strength and packing on muscle while improving lower body function, strengthening weak links, and bulletproofing the lower body (while sparing the spine). This makes them a great option for aging gym-goers who are beat up as they not only deliver a pain-free training effect, but also provide immediate feedback on any underlying issues contributing to pain and/or dysfunction.
While flexibility is a commonly used term to refer to someone’s movement capabilities, its true definition is nothing more than “the ability of a muscle to lengthen passively through a range of motion.” Mobility, on the other hand, can be defined as the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion. In other words, mobility takes flexibility a step further with additional elements of strength, motor control, and joint stability.
Why does it matter? Unless you’re planning on starring as a contortionist in a circus act, flexibility serves little to no purpose in real life. For everything else – lifting, competing in sport(s), going throughout daily life – mobility is what matters.
Statistics on Age Related Decline
In talking about mobility it’s estimated that most individuals begin experiencing decreases in ROM around age 30. Although the reductions differ based on the body part, most studies show that the hips, shoulders, ankles, trunk, and all three regions of the spine can lose up to 20% of their previously measured ROM once past 50 years of age (26,8). This is said to be a result of less water content in the tissues and intervertebral discs, decreased bone density, and a loss of elasticity in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joint capsules.
Why Mobility Matters
As it relates to aging, inadequate mobility can substantially hinder daily functioning and lead to joint stiffness, pain, inactivity, and ultimately, a worsened quality of life. Think about it: the most basic daily acts like reaching overhead, sitting, standing, and bending over require, at least to some degree, adequate mobility. Worse yet, a loss of mobility creates a debilitating domino effect as it makes it more difficult to train effectively, which accelerates the decline of nearly every other physical quality.
In terms of its impact on longevity, one fascinating study had over 2,000 individuals perform a “sit and rise” test to and from the floor – by and large, a test of mobility – and observed how many points of contact (hands/knees) were needed to do so. What they found was that those who needed the most support were 5-6x more likely to die in a 6-year follow up, with each additional point of contact linked to a 21% higher risk of mortality (27).
Why Losing Mobility As We Age is NOT Inevitable
It’s been shown that the primary reason why there’s a significant discrepancy in mobility between age groups isn’t due to age, but rather due to inactivity. Like every other trait mentioned thus far, mobility can improve with age through consistent training and daily movement, with some studies showing improvements upwards of 41% in 12 weeks of training (28). As an added bonus, it was demonstrated that these improvements led to greater muscular strength and performance.
How To Improve Mobility As You Age
- Identify and prioritize your linchpin(s)
Quite frankly, just about everyone has a linchpin or two that’s at the core of movement dysfunction and/or pain. While that’s a whole discussion in and of itself, a good rule of thumb is to look at both sides of the body (front and back) independently.
For the most part, the posturally shortened areas on the front side of the body – namely, the pecs, lats, hip flexors, and adductors – need to be mobilized. The thoracic spine and glutes/hamstrings of the posterior chain, on the other hand, typically need activation-based drills. To dive deeper into how these specific linchpins can be addressed via integrative “correctives,” start by checking out ‘8 Prehab Exercises that Belong in Every Training Program’.
- Perform a 6-phase dynamic warm-up
To get the most out of your warm-up without slogging through mindless foam rolling and stretching for hours on end, apply the strategies outlined in the previously mentioned 6-phase dynamic warm-up. Without going into too much detail (see ‘The Perfect 10-Minute Warm-Up’ for more), the sequence of your warm-up should generally go as follows:
- Targeted soft tissue work, focusing on the previously identified linchpin(s)
- Bi-phasic stretching, honing in on the chronically “tight” regions of the body
- Corrective exercise, prioritizing motor control throughout the pillar complex
- Activation, focusing on firing up the posterior chain
- Movement pattern development, relative to the primary strength movement of the day
- CNS development, ingraining new movement patterns with high-velocity movements
- Reinforce mobility through strength training
Above all else, the key to improving mobility and making the otherwise transient changes of the warm-up “stick” is to reinforce temporary ROM improvements under load. While the stretching and mobility drills performed in the warm-up set the table for the training session, it’s the actual act of training that solidifies improvements in ROM. Plus, training is what improves your ability to stabilize and control that newfound ROM, which is crucial for its safe transference to training and life.
Contrary to what some individuals of the stone age still believe, the antiquated notion that strength training makes you “tight” is completely false. In fact, a plethora of studies have shown that lifting heavy loads through a full ROM is more effective than any other modality for increasing authentic mobility in the hips, shoulders, hamstrings, ankles, lats, and pecs. Moreover, it’s actually been demonstrated that higher intensities are generally linked with greater improvements in mobility, which speaks to the importance of heavy strength training with age (29,30).
#6 Mental Cognition, Clarity and Awareness
By and large, cognition – which can be loosely defined as the process of perceiving, identifying, and understanding input – is reliant on the brain. Its importance goes far beyond any other physical quality, as cognition is at the root of quite literally everything that occurs in life. Whether it’s learning something new, performing cognitively demanding work, or initiating and coordinating motor movements, the brain – and hence cognition – is at the heart of it all.
Statistics on Age Related Decline
Cognitive health is complex and multi-faceted to say the least, as there are a seemingly infinite number of factors that can negatively impact the brain. Regardless of the “causes,” however, the stats on age-related cognitive declines are arguably the ugliest of all.
The most evident change that occurs is an approximate 5% decrease in brain size per decade (on average) after the age of 40 (31). Over time, this coincides with “cognitive slowing,” a term used to describe declines in memory, attention, processing, executive functioning, and perception, among others. After the two decades that follow, there’s also an exponentially increased risk of suffering from psychological or mental health disorders, with dementia and Alzheimer’s being the most common culprits.
Why Cognition Matters (If It’s Not Already Obvious)
There’s some gray area in looking at the correlation between cognitive health and mortality rates, but the impact that the brain has on quality of life – for better or for worse – is crystal clear. Depression, for example, is one of the more debilitating mental conditions that’s increasingly common with age due to the decrease in feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. What these drops are often accompanied by is a lack of motivation to train or partake in physical activity, which further steepens the decline.
Aging is also typified by an increase in cortisol levels (the “stress hormone”), which is estimated to increase by 20% between the ages of 50-89. Likewise, testosterone has been seen to drop at a rate of 1-3% per year after the age of 40 (8). Considering that both of these hormones are paramount for maintaining strength, body composition, energy levels, immunity, and general health and well-being, their declines are catastrophic when stacked on top of inactivity.
Why Declining Cognition As We Age is NOT Inevitable
Paired together, strength training and physical activity have proven to be a magic bullet of sorts for counteracting age-related impairments in the brain and boosting cognitive function. In particular, two meta-analyses found that exercise can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia-related issues by up to 45% and 88%, respectively, while also improving recall, short-term memory, and mood (32).
This led researchers to conclude that strength training is the “only intervention, medical or lifestyle, that has been able to slow and halt degeneration in brain areas over such a long time.”
How To Improve Cognition As You Age
Like locomotion, cognitive health isn’t so much a single trait as it is a manifestation of numerous factors. As it relates to training and lifestyle, however, there are a number of steps that can be taken to manage it with age.
- Double down on strength training
As if all of the previously mentioned benefits of strength training with age aren’t enough, there have been a handful of additional studies that have backed up its impact on cognitive health. One study aptly titled ‘Handgrip Strength is Associated with Poorer Cognitive Functioning in Aging Adults’ tested the grip strength of nearly 14,000 adults aged 50 and up and stacked it up with measures of cognitive function. They found that every 11-lb. reduction in grip strength was associated with 10% greater odds for any cognitive impairment, 18% greater odds for severe cognitive impairment, and 10% greater odds for poorer cognitive functioning (33).
It’s also been shown that strength training can pay huge dividends for improving quality of life and alleviating depression. One study found that more than 80% of previously depressed older adults were no longer clinically depressed after performing 10 weeks of strength training. It’s also worth mentioning that the greatest reductions in depressive symptoms have been directly linked to higher training intensities, which means that pink dumbbell toning workouts won’t cut it (34,8).
- Recover hard and prioritize stress management
Adequate recovery is everything. Without it, any goals revolving around fat loss, muscle gain, performance, or practically anything else will be significantly more difficult to attain. As it relates to aging, the logic regarding its importance is simple; over time, short-term recovery (or a lack thereof) has a compound effect that can make or break long-term health.
While recovery is a whole topic in and of itself, there are plenty of low-hanging fruits that can be addressed to improve recoverability almost immediately. The most obvious ones include getting more quality sleep, improving nutritional habits, implementing performance recovery days, and optimizing other lifestyle factors.
The other big factor that affects recovery – and probably the most detrimental one, if not managed well – is stress, which is generally typified by an increase in cortisol. Granted, acute cortisol spikes can be useful in some circumstances (i.e., training), but chronically high cortisol levels can be catastrophic. The most evident consequences include increased muscle catabolism, inflammation, fat gain, insulin resistance, and inhibited testosterone and growth hormone production. Its long-term effects on cognitive health are even worse, as chronically high cortisol levels accelerate all of the age-related declines as mentioned earlier.
Stress management is an extensive topic, but the big rocks include sleeping, staying active, breathing, and getting outside regularly. For more on the subject, check out ‘Top 20 Ways to Instantly Reduce Stress.’
- Move every day
Humans are made to move. Whether it’s strength training, conditioning, mobility work, walking, or anything else, movement needs to be a non-negotiable component of daily life. Among hundreds of other benefits, daily movement increases blood flow to the brain, reduces brain inflammation, promotes neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to form new neural connections – and improves a handful of additional cognitive measures like memory, attention, processing, and executive functioning.
In fact, it’s been shown that older adults can completely reverse brain shrinkage and increase its volume by over 4% in a mere 6 months by simply walking every day. One study categorized older adults by physical activity levels and found that each standard deviation (by their standards) was associated with a 31% lower risk of dementia and other age-related cognitive impairments. What’s more, an additional study found that older adults (aged 80 and above) who were moving on a daily basis were 3x more likely to survive than those who were inactive in a 2-year follow up (35,36,37).
Training With The Goal of Getting Better Every Year
Aging might present some unique challenges, but it’s far from a death wish. Above all else, the key is to take an intelligent, multi-faceted approach to training and life. Train hard (and smart), spend time moving fast, stay active, prioritize recovery, and strive to optimize your nutritional and lifestyle habits.
Age is NOT a disability; it’s an opportunity to get better every year.
About The Author
Charley Gould, CSCS, PPSC, CFSC, USAW
Charley is a former professional baseball player, current strength-and-conditioning coach, and writer for T-Nation and Bodybuilding.com. He specializes in helping individuals look, feel, and perform like elite athletes. Gould is the head of sports performance at Universal Athletic Club in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
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