Why you should train in your 60s.
Is it really worth the effort?
I think what worries people more, is not how many years they have left to live, but what those years are going to look like.
I would say that in general, people don’t know how much control they could have, and do have, on the extent and rate at which their physical ability declines during their older years.
So I’m going to tell you. Because the difference you can make is huge.
The actual effects of biological aging are notoriously difficult to measure. This has to do with how studies are designed, who shows up for those studies and the difficulty of separating biological age from the overlay of secondary aging, meaning the effects of lifestyle choices.
Nevertheless, the best that science has to offer on the subject tells us that training can be used to counteract the effects age has on many of our domains of function. A domain of function is something like strength, coordination, balance, postural control, or speed. Training is not the same as exercise. Exercise is healthy movement. Training is healthy movement with a plan. It’s the difference between going for a walk, or getting out your map and walking across the country. One option gets you moving around for an hour or so, the other option gets you somewhere.
Why start training in your 60s?
It’s an arbitrary chronological age. If you’re already training in your 40s and 50s then keep at it! If you’re in your 70s, 80s or even 90s it is not too late to start. Resistance training is still effective even at 90+ years of age. I suggested the 60s because it seems to represent a transition time for a lot of people. Careers might be coming to a close and children are leaving or have left home. Someone might be looking at the decades ahead and thinking about what they want to do now. It’s also a time when aches and pains or increasing stiffness are starting to really hamper engagement with desirable activities.
For example, it tends to be somewhere in the 60s that someone would consider giving up backpacking because they feel their knees can’t take it anymore, or give up paddle sports because they are worried about their shoulders. But like I said it’s an arbitrary, chronological age. The older humans get, the more variability there is between individuals.
Here’s a quote from the Functional Aging Institute on that point:
“While literature often reports average declines in physiological systems there is a high degree of inter-individual variability reported in the same literature. This means that while studies may report that a particular component (physiological system) declines on average 30% between the ages of 50 and 80 the actual range of decline among individuals may be as large as 10-60%. Practically speaking, a 10% reduction in that particular component may have no significant effect on the individual while a 60% reduction may cause significant problems and even lead to an active pathology.”
Whether you experience a 10% decline in a given physiological system, or a 60% decline is the part that will be affected by choosing to train that system.
There is a threshold of functional ability. Below that threshold is disability.
Likewise, for each activity you want to do there is a threshold. When your physical ability is above that threshold, you can do the activity, when it is below the threshold you can no longer do the activity. See my article, “Are you strong enough?”
These thresholds of function are often mistaken by people as either pathology, or the inevitable effects of growing old.
When you’re avoiding things that you used to enjoy in life because you’re concerned about hurting yourself. This is when quality of life begins to deteriorate. It can happen at any age.
Training is about regaining and maintaining your quality of life.
The body is always changing. Quadriceps atrophy is measurable after only 2 days of disuse (and that was in 20 year olds). The time when we’re likely to dip below the threshold that’s needed to maintain a desirable activity will be during a period of disuse. Disuse can happen because of the seasonality of certain activities, i.e I don’t garden in the winter (much) and I don’t ski in the summer. It can also happen because sometimes we get sick or injured and are forced to slow down or stop while we recover. And oftentimes recovery is taken only to the point of regaining adequate function, but not taken to the point needed to withstand (or prevent) another injury.
The scientific literature on the effects of exercise is quite extensive. There are a lot of positive effects. It used to be that the research community thought that there might be a cut-off age when the effects of exercise would become different for, say, a 70 year old than they were for a 20 year old. Now it’s accepted that exercise has the same positive effects on human beings regardless of their age. Of course there are differences in starting point and priorities, but the way exercise affects a body is the same.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the benefits of exercise (usually in the form of training), at any age:
- Increased ability to sustain moderate activity with less cardiovascular stress and muscular fatigue.
- Cardiovascular adaptations at rest and during acute exertion.
- Higher bone mineral density.
- Lower central body fat and higher muscle mass. (Which affects insulin utilization, growth hormone and lots of other body chemicals in positive ways.)
- Metabolic changes.
- Healthier nerve-muscle junctions and increased firing rate of motor nerves, leading to greater contraction speeds.
- Improved functional ability, especially with strength and power exercises.
- Improvements in balance and agility. Decrease in fall risk.
- Faster recovery times, both from injury and exertion.
- Improved psychological well-being (including both reducing risk of, and treating, clinical depression and anxiety).
- Improved cognitive function. (From exercise! This is important!)
- Fewer injuries.
- Increased mobility, (i.e. controllable motion at a joint).
I could quantify these things and get much more specific, but I’m trying not to get into the weeds. The upshot is that in many measurable ways progressive exercise can reverse the effects of aging in the human body. Training will keep our level of function above the threshold that allows us to enjoy the activities that create our quality of life.
We can increase our abilities faster than age makes those abilities deteriorate.
If that sounds like a good thing, then let’s start training.