Getting Old Is no Picnic. Here are the 3 Things You Can Do About It:
Like so many industries, fitness over-emphasizes the mystique of 20 and 30 year olds while mostly ignoring anyone over 60. The truth is an older body is just as capable of shaping up as a young one, especially if you take the right approach.
'Wellspan' not lifespan
We used to judge a person’s health outcomes by the number of years they racked up. This was a meaningful metric in the old days, because your first major illness or injury usually killed you.
Modern medicine has introduced a new variable into the equation. We can now prolong life long past the point when natural death would occur. This is usually a good thing. You can knock out gangreen with an antibiotic, or beat a cancer diagnosis with chemotherapy. But our life-sustaining skills also mean that many people spend their last years with chronic pain, severely limited movement, and reliance on medicine and machines for basic functions.
Because of this, age researchers are moving towards the term, “wellspan”. This is the number of years a person is not only alive, but living with a high quality of life. Your fitness efforts should all be pointed towards extending your wellspan rather than your lifespan. This means it’s not enough to simply be “not sick” or “not dead”. Aim for golden years of vitality and robust health!
If you want to lengthen your wellspan, there are three main areas you can work on:
- Functional strength
- Mental sharpness
If you have these three qualities you can make the most of your human experience. Take any one away and your final years will seem long indeed.
1. Mobility: Range of Motion is What Makes You Feel Young!
Young people take it as a given that they’ll be mobile and strong. When the train they’re going after the icing on the cake, aesthetic pursuits like toned arms, a lifted butt, or chiseled abs. But as you age you can’t take your mobility for granted. You’ve got two arms and two legs, and those four limbs are all that’s keeping you from a housebound life. By far the most important thing an older person can work on is maintaining the full range of motion of their hips, shoulders, and spine.
Imagine you’ve been given the task of fixing a squeaky, hard-to-open door with a spray can of lubricant. You intuitively know that you can’t just spray and walk away. You have to spray it first, then open and close the door a few times to make sure the lubricant gets in all the cracks of the hinge. Your joints work in the same way.
The human body glides along on a cushion of cartilage and synovial fluid. A varied diet full of minerals, vitamins, and fats creates the lubricant. But for best effect you have to not only eat well but move well. This means not letting a day go by without spending some time moving your body through the world, be it a walk around the park or a session at the gym.
Physiology is 100% a “use it or lose it” situation. If you never reach down to touch your toes, your body will adapt and make it so that you can’t reach down and touch your toes. A good plan for older people will include plenty of stretches and exercises that move the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, and spine through their maximum range of motion. And magically, that range of motion will increase as you use it. This all adds up to mobility, and mobility is part of a longer wellspan!
2. Functional Strength: Diverse Activity and Smart Resistance Training
It’s estimated that every decade after 50 you lose 10% of your body’s muscle mass. You can slow this loss in two ways.
First, don’t just stay active, stay diversely active. The body has over 600 muscles in it, and different activities utilize different muscles. Each week try to use your body in as many unique ways as possible. Do chores, garden, dance, go to yoga, play tennis, and carry the groceries yourself! Anything that gets your blood pumping and brings on some light muscle burn will be priming your body to keep muscle mass on. When you “retire” from an active life to the recliner, your body gets the signal that all that muscle isn’t needed anymore and it’s quickly jettisoned, never to come back. Don’t let that happen, keep mixing up your activities to keep your body on its toes.
Second, get your body to fully understand the message that it has to keep muscle with smart resistance training. After 60 there’s not much benefit from lifting heavy weight. But where you do get a lot of reward for your effort is bodyweight exercise and resistance band training. Bodyweight exercise (in which you’re only using your own mass as the weight) always results in highly functional muscle that directly translates to real world strength. It also improves your coordination and range of motion. Resistance bands are a safe compromise to work tricky areas like the arms and shoulders where bodyweight exercise is difficult. Both bodyweight and resistance band exercise will keep muscle on and promote bone density while keeping your chance of strains and mishaps to a minimum.
A strong, flexible, coordinated body is a body not only looks great, it’s much less likely to take a fall that results in concussions or bone fractures. Those are the kinds of injuries that shorten your wellspan in an instant.
3. Mental sharpness: For a Longer Life, Have a Social Life
If you’re eating well and exercising frequently, you can rest easy knowing that your brain will get the same benefits as your body. But is there anything else you can do to stay sharp?
In the past 20 years a lot of noise has been made about things like doing the crossword puzzle or other brain training games. But the science shows that doing these activities just makes you better at those activities without much transfer to general brain health.
What has been shown to keep brains healthy is meaningful human interaction. Humans are intensely social creatures. There’s a reason solitary confinement is considered the harshest possible punishment. When you deprive the brain of social interaction, it atrophies just like a muscle that never gets used. As we age, it’s easy to stop reaching out to make new connections and retreat into ourselves. But those human connections are what keep your brain supple. People who live in tight-knit families and communities (like the Amish or Okinawans) not only live longer, they have less mental decline and dementia. Another win for wellspan.
This social effect on brain health is especially pronounced when an older person spends time with younger people, so be sure to not only keep your old friends but make new ones along the way!