Fitness Quest: Healthy Aging

Someone once, I can’t remember who, described aging best: you’re old when you drop something and you have to decide if it’s worth bending over to pick it up or if you can learn to live without it.

This observation seemed like a funny joke when I first heard it, but today it strikes a little too close to home. I don’t know about you but every day I wake up with some new little snap, crackle, or pop and I don’t mean in my cereal bowl! The sad truth is that time has a way with catching up to all of us sooner or later and no matter how we fight it we have to admit that we might be just a little bit past our prime as we enter our golden years (not that I’m there yet *cough*).

The problem as I see it is that most of us surrender to the inevitable way, way too soon. There are reports that for each decade past the age of 30 that men will lose between 3 and 5% of their muscle mass resulting in a loss of 30% of their muscle in their lifetimes (compared to their twenties). Moreover, there are also studies that show most people will also gain 1 or 2 pounds a year at the same time. Why? Well, no doubt some of this is because of the natural aging process. But I maintain it’s also because at some point in their youth most people just decide that it’s not worth the effort to stay fit anymore. They sit down in front of their TVs, laptops, tablets, phones, whatever and just don’t get up. Maybe it’s because of some pain or stiffness in the joints. Maybe it’s just because they feel tired all the time. Maybe it’s just because of <insert reason here>. Maybe it really is because of some serious medical condition – but I’m guessing that if you are still reading this that it’s not in your case and you are really looking for the key to staying healthy longer. Well here it is: exercise.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to workout like a pro-athlete or get up and run marathons several times a year (though you can if you want). I’m suggesting that even a moderate amount of movement each day, along with a little weight bearing exercise (body or actual weights) can help you maintain strength, balance, and keep those pounds off as you get older. Along with a healthy diet, of course.

Skinny me in my twenties!
Not so skinny me today. Yes, there’s still some muscle under the fat.

I’ll use myself as an example. Based on photographic evidence I was always a fairly skinny guy through my teens and into my twenties. At one point after my Crohn’s revealed itself I only weighed about 130 – 140 pounds for a while at a height of about 5’11”. However, over the course of my thirties and forties instead of losing muscle mass as the experts would predict I nearly doubled my bodyweight. Certainly, a lot of my mass gained was fat but I also increased my strength from bench pressing 95 pounds (43 kg) to a 1 rep max lift of 350 pounds (159 kg) in my late forties. In other words, at an age when my strength should have been declining, thanks to regular exercise my strength increase more than threefold.

Even today, though I don’t lift heavy to protect my joints, my 1 rep max lift is calculated to be at about 315 pounds (143 kg). Okay, I just said that to brag since it’s a decrease in strength over the past decade it doesn’t really support my overall point. Going on…

Now I may not be the best example, because thanks to Crohn’s I was not at full strength for a good chunk of my twenties or even good health. The onset of my disease did set me back a fair amount and I lost gains that I had made earlier during college. Not that I was a beefcake before Crohn’s reared it’s life altering head. But my point remains, instead of losing muscle over the next twenty years I gained muscle through regular exercise. Likewise, my regular training partner, who did not suffer from the same medical conditions and setbacks I did, also gained muscle and strength during this period. To me we are both examples that the “ravages of time” can at the very least be slowed down if not out right reversed through regular weight bearing exercise.

And it’s never too late to start. Studies have shown that people in their seventies, eighties and beyond are capable of gaining muscle and strength with just moderate weightlifting. Now granted as we age our joints maybe can’t take the strain of very heavy lifting and certainly recovery time is greater. Even I have to admit that I’m unlikely to be able to win the title of Mr. Olympia no matter how hard I train or even become a social media fitness model (shocking, I know). But I do know that if I fall down I have the strength to get up and, more importantly, I have the strength to squat without having to use the handles in the handicap stall in a public restroom. Practical strength is valuable as we age – trust me. Also, bonus, weight bearing exercises also keep your bones strong.

Even if weights aren’t your thing, there is value in just getting up and moving each day. Take a brisk walk, do some yoga or stretching, find some way to move. This will improve your cardiovascular system and balance, too.

Exercise alone doesn’t solve every issue of aging. Arthritis and other issue will likely cause your joints to ache. As I age I find I have to pay attention to other things, too. Diet, obviously, and also posture. Years of spending my days hunched over a computer keyboard have taken a toll. Both in terms of stiffness in my shoulders and in what is now sometimes called “nerd neck” (really). It may take some effort to get back into the habit of standing tall, gut in, shoulders back, chest out, but it’s worth it in the long run.

Good posture can make you look better and feel better – even as you get older!

Sadly, there are no guarantees in life and exercise isn’t a panacea for all conditions. The reality is that you can do everything right and still get sick. Take me for example, as I mentioned earlier I have Crohn’s disease. This condition, which is of unknown origin still today, may have been partly responsible for the heart attack which damaged – and continues to damage – my heart. I suffered a bowel perforation from the damage that Crohn’s did to my intestines, which resulted in me becoming an ostomate for several months. Though the surgery saved my life and I’ve been “reconnected” my digestive system doesn’t work at peak performance. I’m incapable of absorbing nutrients as well as I did prior to the surgery which could have a long term impact on my health. I was hospitalized with Norovirus which was likely picked up because I likely ate food that someone who didn’t wash their hands properly had prepared. This caused extreme dehydration and my kidneys even shut down so they don’t work as well as they used to now. I had a blood clot in my leg (deep vein thrombosis aka DVT). I have to sleep with “life support” – a CPAP machine – due to central sleep apnea which causes my brain to forget to tell my lungs to keep breathing, and so on and so forth. No matter what you do you are likely going to have problems as you get older.

You will also likely consider shaving your ears but that’s a topic best left for another blog entry.

I strongly suggest that you start moving more as soon as possible. Obviously, consult with your medical care team (and if you’re older you probably have a team of doctors) before beginning any new exercise program. However, I have often said that the moment you stop moving is the moment you become old. It’s as simple as that.

The thing to remember, no matter how tough aging can be, is that we are among the lucky ones. Many people haven’t made it to our age (whatever that may be). Each day is a blessing and we should make the most of every single one. None of us knows how long we have on this Earth, but with a little self-care the chances of those remaining days and years being enjoyable increase considerably.

As the saying goes, old age isn’t for the timid. They also say only the good die young. So do yourself a favor and give your bad self some exercise!

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr