aging · athletes · fitness

Is Aging a Lifestyle Choice?

I’ve been reading, and really enjoying, Gretchen Reynolds’ book on exercise science, The First Twenty Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer.

Lots of it is fun but for those of us who follow exercise science in the media not really news.  I read Reynolds’ Phys Ed column in the New York Times and lots of the chapters cover in more detail, and with footnotes and references, material covered there. That’s fine. Nice to have it all in one place. High Intensity Interval Training beats out long, slow workouts. Yep. Chocolate milk is a better recovery drink than Gatorade. Yep. Exercise doesn’t help (much) in the quest to lose weight. Yep. Sad but true. OK, it gets worse. Massage after exercise–a cyclist’s favourite thing–doesn’t actually increase blood flow to muscles or help remove lactic acid to aid recovery. (Read about that sad result here, Still feels wonderful though so I’m sticking with that one. Science be damned.

But the chapter that is still rattling around in my brain is the one on exercise and aging. My blog title is the controversial way of posing the question Reynolds asks in less bold terms. What exactly is the connection between exercise and aging? The old view was that muscle loss and a decline in aerobic  capacity were inevitable with old age. We slow down with age and become more frail, starting in our 40s, it seemed. But new research suggests the connections may run the other way. We become slower and more frail because we stop moving. Older athletes get slower and less strong, not because they’re older, but rather because they train less than younger athletes.

We age because we stop moving, on this way of thinking about the connection. It’s as if aging is something we choose to do. That’s a very intriguing idea. What’s positive about this is we could choose differently. We could choose to keep moving and avoid some of the physical decline we associate with old age. But what’s less clear is why older people slow down and take to their rockers. It may be that the psychological urge to rest is stronger than Reynolds and the researchers think. If aging brains are the problem, then slowing with age still might be inevitable.

I got a taste of the ‘use it or lose it’ idea this week when I went to physio for my injured shoulder. In addition to a host of exercises, I was complimented for getting right back to Aikido, Crossfit, etc. I shared with the physio dude the worry of friends and relatives that I ought to slow down while my shoulder healed, maybe even take time off lifting weights and doing martial arts. Yeah, he replied, lots of people think that and then they never regain the range of motion they had and it gets harder to go back to your usual physical activities. Keep moving, he said, echoing Reynolds.

If you want the short version of Reynolds on exercise and old age, look here: Aging Well Through Exercise,