Keeping active is key to a healthy lifestyle. However, our bodies change as we get older and we need to target our exercise accordingly, says Andy Darling.
Whatever the reasons — fewer school playing fields and less time spent doing PE, fewer children walking to school and “paranoid parents” stopping them from climbing trees — most of this age group “do bugger all’, according to specialist sports doctor Catherine Spencer-Smith. “We need to get them active so their generation doesn’t die before us,” she says.
A wide range of activities is preferable. “Building up as much bone mineral density as possible is vital,” says Spencer-Smith.
“Hopping, running, skipping, jumping off things and rapid twisting are all important.”
Weight training was previously thought to be detrimental to the physical development of adolescents, but there has recently been a substantial shift in thinking and exercising with weights is known to increase bone density.
“If a child is old enough and sensible enough to follow instructions, say from the age of 11, a programme of light weights and high repetitions is a good idea,” adds Spencer-Smith. “It is safe, provided they are supervised, the technique is good and, crucially, that they are not lifting weights that are too heavy. A good rule to follow is that if they cannot easily do 10 repetitions, the weights are too heavy.”
Instilling good technique pays off in later years. John Shepherd, author of The Complete Guide To Sports Training, is 46 and came second in the recent European Masters long jump. “I’m lucky, I’ve never had any real injuries, perhaps because my limbs are in alignment during activities thanks to proper instruction from an early age.”
How much do you need to do? Three to five one-hour sessions a week of running, jumping and so on. All exercise, at any age, should be followed by stretching. Keen children could do an additional two one-hour weights sessions.
It is still important to develop bone mineral density at this age, so the ideal activities are weight-bearing, dynamic ones, such as running, dancing, football or martial arts.
“It is also good to do some posture work, such as Pilates, yoga, Alexander technique or balancing exercises on a Fitball [or Swiss ball],” says Spencer-Smith.
“Anything involving balance is good and it doesn’t have to be a formal, organised activity: dance is great. At this age, you may well be a desk slave, so it is particularly important to develop good postural habits. It is also a good idea to become accustomed to doing some kind of regular exercise — for example, cycling or jogging — to destress.”
For women who want to become pregnant, Spencer-Smith adds: “If you are overweight or sedentary, you may well experience fertility issues. Exercise can help with hormone regulation and increase the possibility of conception.”
How much do you need to do? Three one-hour sessions of cardiovascular activities a week plus one to three one-hour sessions of Pilates, Alexander technique or yoga.
It is possible to play top-class sport until the mid-30s. “Everything is pretty good until about 35,” says Karen Hambly, senior lecturer in sports therapy at London Metropolitan University. “Thereafter, a whole series of things is going on. It’s like having a car; when there are a few miles on the clock, things start to break down. Our resting heart rate increases and our muscle mass and strength decrease.”
Central to this is the decrease, in both sexes, of production of growth hormone (GH) by the pituitary gland. GH is the primary stimulus for muscle, bone and tendon strength, and is also closely linked with the mobilisation of fat as fuel, thus helping maintain a lean physique.
“Intense exercise helps us to produce more GH,” says Shepherd, “increasing our youthfulness and vitality and improving our skin tone. So it is important to do short, intense bursts of activity at this age, rather than thinking that fitness is all about building endurance. Whatever cardiovascular activity you do, be it indoor rowing, running, swimming or triathlon, make sure you also do strength training. You can lose loads of weight doing endurance work, but weight training develops the whole body.”
Weight training can be done on gym resistance machines, although free weights improve core strength better as there is no machine to support your body.
How much do you need to do? Two to four one-hour sessions of weights, followed by cardiovascular work and stretching. In addition, one to three sessions a week of Pilates, Alexander technique, tai chi or yoga.
The fifth decade is when our bodies express, ever more loudly, what they have been put through. Joint wear and tear is commonplace, with signs of osteoarthritis often coming to light. Given that lung function declines with age, it is important to maintain cardiovascular fitness. If your knees are painful, then swim, cycle or use an indoor rower. Whatever the state of your joints, this is a good time to undergo gait analysis, which involves running on a treadmill while a sports-injury specialist, aided by a bundle of computer software, assesses postural abnormalities. “We can prevent decline in physical function later in life by pinpointing and dealing with problems now,” says Mitchell Phillips, a postural and sports-injury therapist.
Strength work is a must, too, as the pituitary gland grows wearier still of producing GH. “Compound moves, such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses, done with medium to heavy weights are the key,” says Shepherd.
“Free weights are better than machines, as they improve functional strength and work the core and, again, proper instruction is important. You’re looking at four sets of each exercise, of about six to 10 repeats, so you’re targeting your fast-twitch muscle fibres [muscle fibres used for intense, sprint-type movements, as opposed to slow-twitch fibres used for endurance exercise]. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate and the more fat you burn when you’re resting. If you are new to weight training, though, start slowly. You have to precondition your body.”
How much do you need to do? Two to four one-hour sessions of cardiovascular work, weights/resistance and stretching. In addition, do Pilates, Alexander technique, yoga or tai chi one to three times a week.
Investment for later life is the mantra as we approach retirement age.
“Nerve conduction and reflexes slow down as we age,” says Hambly. “While we can’t turn back the tide, we can slow the rate of decrease. A classic cause of disability in elderly people is falling, because of loss of balance.
Before we reach that stage, if we can reduce the slowing down of the nervous system, we can reduce the likelihood of falling when we’re older.”
Pilates, Alexander technique and core-stability exercises can work wonders in training the neural system. Proprioception refers to the brain’s ability to know where our limbs are in space without having to look. To aid his clients’ proprioception, personal trainer Bob Rising (60), gets them to stand on one foot. “Try doing it with your eyes closed. All the muscles twitch and, at first, you might panic. Then you start to improve.”
Strength training is a must, too. Use lighter weights or rubber resistance bands instead. Aim for 20 to 30 repeats. For cardiovascular fitness, Hambly suggests swimming, walking, cycling and rowing indoors or on water.
“Low-impact exercise is best. It is all about protecting the knees and hips.”
How much do you need to do? Two to four one-hour cardiovascular and weights/resistance sessions, followed by stretching. Also Pilates, Alexander technique, yoga or tai chi one to three times a week.
Between the ages of 30 and 70, the average person loses 25% of their muscle mass. In this decade alone, they lose 15% of their strength. Relatively speaking, though, endurance increases, hence the number of veteran runners in marathons. While it could be argued that it would make sense to go in for plodding, ultra-distance challenges to boost fitness levels, working on weaknesses such as strength, should take priority.
Balance, body awareness and ability to function in daily life can be enhanced by strength work. “Without wishing to sound depressing, we’re not talking about building strength, but decreasing the decline,” says Hambly.
You can’t do high-intensity sports at this age (swimming is your best bet for cardiovascular fitness). With weights, use lighter ones and do up to 30 repeats, perhaps with a longer recovery time between sets and rest days between sessions. Work the upper body once or twice a week and the lower body once or twice on different days, so you have plenty of recovery time.
Acceptance is mandatory. “It’s not about throwing the towel in. It’s about being realistic,” says Hambly.
How much do you need to do? Two to four one-hour cardiovascular and weights/resistance sessions, plus Pilates, Alexander technique, yoga or tai chi one to three times a week.
Our metabolism slows down as we become older and we require a lower calorie intake. This should be borne in mind when we exercise — otherwise that post-workout hunger could result in excess calories and increased body fat.
Social aspects become an important driver in staying active in your 70s.
Yoga, tai chi and Pilates are all beneficial. “Anything that can promote the idea of standing up, balancing, stretching and breathing, bringing in all that coordination, has got to be good,” says Phillips.
Tai chi, in particular, scores well. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that this gentle martial art increased physical confidence and reduced falls by 47,5% in people aged over 70.
For the more competitive, Hambly has noticed an upsurge in elderly participants joining table tennis and badminton clubs. “You can play them with a limited level of mobility, get a really good cardiovascular workout and socialise,” she says. Golf is also popular, although because it is a repetitive, “one-sided” activity, it can lead to hip injuries.
How much do you need to do? Two classes each week of tai chi, yoga or Pilates and two sessions of cardiovascular exercise.
Nordic walking — marching along, using sticks like ski poles for balance and propulsion — is highly recommended for the over-80s.
Phillips says it can have a great effect on cardio fitness and endurance. “The balance and stability that the poles provide help to reduce the risk of falling, regardless of the environment, so it can mean the difference between going out and exercising and doing nothing at all.”
“As you get older, it’s more important than ever to get the right gear,” says Hambly. “As we age, our thermoregulation isn’t so good, so it may be an idea to wear more layers of sports clothing when you exercise.” She also emphasises the importance of getting walking or running shoes appropriate to your gait.
That means going to a specialist running shop.
Swimming — which will soon be free for all over-60s as part of the 2012 programme — is also good exercise for this age group.
Hambly stresses the importance of stretching after exercise. “Elasticity in muscles and tendons decreases with age,” she says, “and the more supple you are, the better.
“If your balance isn’t great to start with, do static stretching, and if you can manage something more dynamic, go for gentle yoga or Pilates.”
How much do you need to do? Daily gentle cardiovascular exercise and stretching. —