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Muscle Maturity: Weight Training as You Age

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By: 
Ashleigh Atkinson, MHK

When it comes to working out and your physique, is age just a number?

Aging is an unavoidable part of life. With age comes experience and knowledge, which you can apply to improve your health and your physique. Unfortunately, aging also brings a few potential drawbacks. Factors such as a natural decline in hormones and an increased risk of injury are assumed to be part and parcel of the aging process. Although some of these may be true, with the right information and some strategic planning, aging doesn’t have to undermine your goals.

With the advancement of science and medicine, along with an increased knowledge of personal health, we’re living longer than ever. In fact, over the last 25 years in Canada, our life expectancy has increased by seven years. On average, Canadians are living to be 82 years of age. Now, it’s up to us to make those years high quality by focusing on staying healthy.

Remember, you’re only as old as you feel, and training consistently is a surefire way to make sure you feel your youngest.

The Science of Aging

The process of aging is actually rather unclear. Although the changes that occur to our physical and mental functions are understood, the biological basis for them is still being researched. As it stands, two main types of factors are deemed responsible for the aging process: programmed and damage-related.

Programmed factors work on a biological timeline, similar to childhood development. Changes that happen are based on gene expressions affecting our internal systems. Over time, these changes impair the body’s ability to maintain, repair, and defend itself, and damage accumulates. This factor is very much internal, as it focuses on the way the body behaves and changes on the inside.

On the other hand, damage theory focuses on the external environment and the damages it can cause at various levels. In this case, aging is considered to be the result of the body becoming unable to defend against these issues and naturally deteriorating over time.

All living tissue, whether it’s muscle, nerve, or connective, is made up of cells. These cells all perform specific roles, each with their own biology of vital parts. Cells work endlessly to support the body and keep it functioning, but in doing so, they experience wear and tear, and even death. The body maintains a fairly consistent number of cells, as they multiply when needed. But with age, cells have a more difficult time multiplying, deteriorating in number and in their ability to support the body as efficiently. With this comes several changes: Muscle is lost, joints become stiffer, organs function slower, and the immune system becomes weaker.

The by-products of these physiological changes are obvious and are the stereotypical things that come to mind with aging: slower movements, strength loss, poor balance, aches and pains, and more reliance on medication due to various illnesses and diseases.

There are many views on the aging process and how it occurs. The bottom line is that over time, damage and change take place within the body, which affects our function and appearance. The changes we see and feel are grouped under the concept of “aging” and are accepted as the natural process and decline we experience the longer we live. However, you can work to delay this process, with the work taking place in the gym.

Exercise: The Fountain of Youth

Okay, so you can’t stay young forever, but you can feel young for longer by being active. Exercise prevents many effects of aging—if done right! Building or maintaining muscle mass is an underlying component of staying young. The outcome as well as the work you need to do to achieve this is helpful, yielding a healthy body composition, which goes a long way toward keeping you feeling and functioning youthfully.

Keep a few key things in mind as you step into the gym each session. Factors such as exercise selection and training intensity are more important now than ever. As you age, it may become more critical to monitor your heart rate throughout training, or opt to use more supported forms of exercises to prevent injuries.

Taking care of your muscle is a comprehensive activity, so don’t overlook the importance of supplementation and rest. Bonus points for those who prioritize their nutrition, too. Not only will this keep you energized for your training, but eating well will further promote hormonal health to aid in muscle retention and growth. If you can master all of these factors and execute them on a consistent basis, there’s no reason you need to feel the effects of aging.

Hormones

Any discussion around aging and training needs to touch on hormones. These chemicals work to send messages throughout the body and play a vital role in body composition. As we age, hormone production naturally changes, affecting how you look, feel, and perform.

In men, testosterone peaks around the age of 20 and begins to decline after 30, with the decrease occurring at a more substantial rate every decade afterwards. When an optimal hormone balance exists, testosterone aids in keeping and building muscle, which works towards a healthy body composition and protects against muscle loss. As testosterone declines, an imbalance can occur whereby estrogen is able to play a stronger role in the body. Some markers of low testosterone levels include a decrease in sex drive, a lack of energy, and fat storage around the midsection.

In women, hormonal changes generally don’t start to take effect until later in life, around the age of 50, when menopause commonly starts. Menopause is marked by large fluctuations in estrogen, which can result in hot flashes, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, and a slower metabolism, leading to increased body fat.

Working out, especially strength training, is a protective factor for your hormone balance. Training releases myriad hormones, specifically human growth hormone and testosterone. These boost the ability to build muscle, and also provide health benefits such as improving metabolic function and maintaining a good body composition. For females, regular intense exercise can keep estrogen levels in check, aiding in fat loss and even preventing certain types of cancers.

Work with your body’s natural hormone production cycle by training in the early afternoon. This is actually when hormones are at their lowest, so spiking them here will provide you with an additional influx over the course of your day.

Let’s Get to Work

If you’re young or old, are new or a veteran to the gym, it doesn’t matter. Even if you’ve been out of the gym for a few years, the goal is the same: improve your health and build the muscle you need or want to carry. These are the critical factors to keep in mind, whether they affect you right now or a few years down the road.

Exercise Intensity

As you age, being aware of training intensity becomes more important. Our max heart rate naturally declines with age, which might mean that the intensity of your training and cardio sessions has to be pulled back slightly. Remember that intensity doesn’t only come from heart pounding, sweat-dripping activity. The load and volume of weights lifted adds intensity to your session as well.

You can gauge how hard you’re working in several ways. One of the quickest and most informative measures is heart rate. Knowing your max heart rate target and then tracking your heart rate as you work can tell you the intensity of your workout. To find your max heart rate in beats per minute (bpm), simply subtract your age from 220. For example, a 45-year-old would have a max heart rate of 175 bpm (220 – 45 = 175). This number is a general guideline for you to follow throughout your sessions. Monitor how you feel as you near or pass this number, and dial back the intensity if you start to feel dizzy or weak.

Theoretically, building muscle is simple. Lifting weights causes damage to the muscle fibres so they need to rebuild themselves, making them stronger over time. The caveat to this is that the challenge must continue to progress; otherwise, the body adapts and growth will plateau. With age comes a slower rebuilding process, which may hinder both your progression and intensity. You may find that it takes longer to increase the load you use, as your recovery and strength gains are slower.

It can be advantageous to apply different training styles and intensity over the course of a year. For example, a training block focused on building strength, followed by a block with higher reps and less weight will expose your body to different stimuli and will give it time to recover from one style. Both styles have a place in building muscle, and the periodization of these can give the body a much-needed break. Heavy strength-focused sessions tax the central nervous system and the joints, both of which will benefit from a break from time to time. It’s important to train smart when thinking of longevity.

Injury Prevention

Over the years, the body experiences wear and tear. This is especially true in people who have been active regularly, putting more strain on their muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. Keeping active throughout the day and building muscular strength can help prevent injuries into the future. The two main factors to consider for injury prevention are exercise selection and adequate recovery.

Exercise selection. A good quality gym is going to offer plenty of options: dumbbells, barbells, cables, and pin-loaded machines. A comprehensive plan should include a variety of these, as they’ll each hit your muscle groups in a slightly different way. Consider the differences between them all, as well as your current skill level, in order to make smarter choices on the floor.

Free weights, including dumbbells and barbells, bring a higher risk of injury at any age, but are fundamental pieces of equipment. They recruit a wide variety of muscles for stability, including your core. Structure your workout to include these when you’re warm, but early in the workout before you get fatigued, and it’s always wise to have a spotter around. Cables remove most injury risk and provide a more constant source of tension through the range of motion, making them a great option to include. Plus, there’s a wide variety of exercises for every muscle group that can be performed with a good set of cables. Lastly, pin-loaded machines are built to control the range of motion, making them the least risky for injury and perfect for beginners or those who have been out of the gym for a prolonged time.

Nothing is off-limits based on your age, but you should always do an honest self-assessment about the state of your body before choosing exercises. If you have chronic back pain, it’s probably wise to stick to exercises where your back is supported, such as a hack squat instead of barbell squats. If you have tendonitis in your elbows, opting to use cables for your curls may be better than a barbell. Although this is the case at any age, it’s even more relevant in older adults, who should prioritize the health of their joints, tendons, and ligaments.

Rest. Muscle doesn’t grow in the gym; it grows when at rest. No matter your age, time away from the gym is imperative to recover and allow the body to rebuild. However, this need seems to increase with age. Remember, aging causes many of the bodily systems to operate at a slower rate, which means rebuilding and repairing tissue takes longer. Listening to your body and giving it ample time between sessions is smart. This doesn’t mean you need to decrease your training frequency during the week. It just means you need to put a little more thought into your training split.

For example, when planning your week, ensure you leave at least 48 hours between sessions that activate the same muscle group, whether it’s a primary or secondary muscle. If you find that after 48 hours, you’re still sore, push that muscle group back another day.

For the days you take off strength training, shift your focus to cardio to keep the body moving and for the cardiovascular benefits. Activities such as yoga can also be woven into the week as it offers a low-impact way to improve balance—a critical component in injury prevention. Additionally, you may find that longer warm-ups, and including a cooldown with stretches, may be more beneficial now than it was before. Prioritize these facets of training to keep your body functioning at its best.

When it comes to preventing injuries, it’s important to address a problem when you start to suspect one. You need to know the difference between normal muscle soreness and a nagging pain that doesn’t go away in an acceptable length of time. Rather than hoping it clears up on its own, get it checked by a professional early and take action as needed. You’ll be happier taking a week off now than needing months off down the road, should a serious injury should occur.

Nutrition

Nutrition is one component that should always be a priority, regardless of age. It’s always important to feed your body for performance and recovery, but the focus on supporting hormone health through diet increases with age.

Diets are always going to need to be individualized. However, when it comes to building muscle, the focus is primarily on the macronutrients, especially protein. Carbohydrates play a role in performance and recovery, with fats being beneficial for digestion and sustained energy. When it comes to hormonal health, fats start to become a higher priority. Healthy fats are essential for hormone production and function. Eat a variety of fats throughout the day, including nuts, seeds, fatty cold-water fish, fattier cuts of grass-fed meat, avocados, and eggs.

As a secondary component, diet plays a vital role in hormonal health through body composition. Hormone levels are best balanced when a healthy body weight is maintained, which comes from the combination of a well-balanced diet and being active. Never overlook the importance of your nutrition—regardless of your age!

Supplementation

Supplements are meant to be used in conjunction with a well-rounded nutrition plan, not in place of one. When it comes to building muscle and fighting the aging process, some supplements should be staples in your daily routine.

Keeping internal inflammation at bay can help prevent a number of chronic diseases and keep your body functioning smoothly. A high-quality omega-3 supplement has been found to reduce chronic inflammation as well as help alleviate joint pain.

Boosting the king of hormones is always beneficial. Taking the natural route, adequate levels of vitamin D3 and zinc have been linked to good testosterone levels in healthy men.

As your body needs to work harder to repair itself following workouts, supplements such as glutamine can aid in the process. The reparative function of glutamine extends to other areas of the body, including the digestive tract and the immune system, helping you assimilate food optimally and ward off illnesses, keeping you in the gym consistently.

When the mission is to build muscle, we can’t overlook the power of protein, but we’re not talking about chicken, beef, or whey. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, found in muscle, skin, bones, cartilage, and ligaments. Your body will produce collagen, but much like everything else, this production decreases with age. Collagen supplements are available in easy-to-take options such as powders, liquids, and capsules. Touted to benefit joint and muscle health, as well as improve the look and health of your skin, hair, and nails, this supplement may help you look as well as feel younger.

Relying too heavily on supplements to keep your health in place is the wrong approach. But when used alongside a nutrient-rich diet, complete with plenty of vitamins and minerals, they can go a long way for performance, hormonal balance, and your overall health.

Keep It Safe

Keep in mind that everyone is at a different level of fitness and has different physical capabilities. If you’ve always been very active and have a clean bill of health, keep going as hard as you have been to stay feeling young, healthy, and in shape. If you’re just starting up, it’s a good idea to get a thorough checkup from your doctor to ensure your major systems are functioning well. Training should always improve your health, never put it in jeopardy.

By staying active and challenging the muscles of the body (especially the heart) as you age, you can unlock the secret to staying youthful. Building and preserving muscle, along with keeping a healthy body composition, will provide longevity. Don’t let your chronological age be a barrier. Put in the work and you’ll see that age is truly just a number.

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