Effects of Aging and Exercise

There comes a day in everyone’s life when an activity that used to be easy, becomes challenging.  The effects of time and age escape none of us, but time spent in the gym can significantly improve function and decrease and slow aging’s normal effects. Think of exercise, specifically strength training, as one of the best anti-aging measures on the market.

Normal Aging

As we get older there are many natural processes that occur that make us more likely to get injured.  Peak muscle mass (size) and strength occurs around 25-30 years of age.  After age 30 we slowly start losing muscle mass.  Our tendons, which attach the muscle to the bones, become less elastic (stretchy) and lose strength. Our bone density or thickness can begin to decrease, especially in women over 50.  Our joints can begin to lose the shiny cartilage that surrounds the ends of bones, a condition known as osteoarthritis.  If we do nothing to counteract the effects of aging, we lose a little more strength, flexibility, and motion every day.

In sedentary people, the loss of muscle, tendon strength and tissue elasticity declines rapidly after thirty.  That decline becomes even sharper after fifty.  The likelihood of injury, with physically demanding activities is high.  No one can reverse the fact that we will begin to lose muscle, strength, or elasticity after thirty, but one can significantly slow the process by exercise.  Every year you age and don’t continue to exercise, you become more at risk for injury.

Strength Training and Muscle Adaptation

Strength training is incredibly important.  At any age our body has the capacity to build muscle and become, bigger and stronger (just not as strong as when you were younger).  Very simply put “move it, or lose it.”   As our bodies become less elastic, our tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments) shorten and we can begin to lose the motions available at our joints.  Specifically, if our work and daily lives never demand our joints to go through their full range of motion, as we age and adapt we will lose that ability.

When it comes to muscle strength we have two basic types (three in total but two main types) of fibers that compose our muscles.  In each muscle we have fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers.  Our slow twitch muscles are active at almost all times, used especially to maintain positions and posture.  Our fast twitch fibers are larger, more powerful and are used during more quick explosive movements.  As we age, we are less likely to move quickly during our day or at work, which means we stop using those fast twitch fibers.  Atrophy, or wasting away, begins when the body doesn’t use these fibers any longer.  It is important to strength train and train at different speeds of movement to work the entire muscle and see the desired results.

Before beginning any exercise program you should be screened by your physician.  If you have had injuries in the past or are concerned about becoming injured, a physical therapist can evaluate your current ability level and help safely design a training program, that incorporates strength training, balance, flexibility and posture.  Stay younger, longer.