As we grow older, we move less; right? This commonly held assumption is partly based on biological facts, however it is mainly a self-fulfilling prophecy. Age and exercise are related, but the relationship isn’t as simple as most of us make it seem.
If you’re a younger reader, don’t skip this article. One of the secrets to staying healthy in middle age and old age is to start early. If you’re an older reader, whether you have worked out all your life or are just getting started, this article is for you.
The Relationship Between Age and Exercise
“The years of our life are threescore and ten,
Or even by reason of strength, fourscore.
Yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”
According to the CDC, the Psalmist is still right: the average person can expect to live to about 78. Divide that by two and you get to “middle age.” However, the relationship between age and exercise starts to change long before that. Our physical bodies actually start to go “over the hill” in our early-to-mid-twenties.
As young as 23 or so, max heart rate starts to decrease, our lungs start to work less effectively, our metabolism starts to slow down, you get it. However, these biometrics decrease more steeply in people leading a sedentary lifestyle and they still start to decrease from wherever they were in your early-to-mid-twenties. That leads to two key takeaways.
The first is that the healthier you are in your early-to-mid-twenties, the healthier you can stay for longer even if you don’t push your physical activity as hard as you could later on in life. The second is that if you maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, or even develop a more healthy and active lifestyle later, you can live healthier and longer.
In the rest of this article, we’re going to dig deeper into these claims and themes. The relationship between age and exercise is complicated but the TLDR is that you’re never too young to get healthy or too old to stay that way.
Need some inspiration? Google Stephen Lang – I’ll wait.
Did you Google Stephen Lang? Is 69-year-old Stephen Lang more ripped than you? 69-year-old Stephen Lang is more ripped than me.
Start or Maintain a Good Relationship With Your Doctor
If you have always been a health-minded person, you probably already have a good relationship with your doctor. While you should maintain that relationship, you should also feel pretty comfortable with understanding your own limits and abilities. As you get older, your exercises should still challenge you but they might challenge you if you cut back instead of ramping up.
If you are starting to check in with your health more seriously later in your life, that’s okay. You might not have a “head start” but that doesn’t mean that you can’t increase your life expectancy and quality of life by starting your fitness journey later rather than never. However, you should start by talking to your doctor.
Don’t get down on yourself; we at HTBM give that advice to pretty much everyone. No matter where you are in life, your healthcare provider will commend your decision to exercise and they will help you navigate the waters of age and exercise to get the most out of your fitness journey with the least amount of risk.
Remember that Diet Is Part of Health Too
This is our last sort of boiler-plate disclaimer before we get down to brass tax: this article is about age and exercise, but part of that conversation has to be diet. As we mentioned above, your metabolism starts to slow down as you age.
You still need to eat enough carbs to power your workout, but eating more carbs than you need can catch up with you faster when you’re older. In addition to direct health risks from body fat, it can make it even harder for you to exercise. Many young people get caught up in this vicious cycle and it’s not something that you want to contend with when you’re older.
Further, your body’s dietary needs change as you get older. And, there has never been a better time to cut back on drinking and smoking if these are things that you struggle with – and your doctor can help in these areas too. So, if you haven’t talked to your doctor about your workout routine yet, ask them for some pointers and feedback on your diet while you’re there.
Now, to return to some of the themes around age and exercise that we introduced at the top of the article:
Because lung efficiency, heart efficiency, and metabolism all start to decline as you get older, it makes sense to build your workout routine around cardio. You can still work out to build muscle, and we’ll get to that next, but cardio should be your pillar.
And again, this isn’t necessarily more true for you than it is for anyone else. Too many young people take their cardiovascular health for granted and don’t develop their heart and lungs as much as they should earlier on in their fitness journey.
This doesn’t mean that you need to constantly run. If you can and do run, by all means, stick with it. However, activities like running and jogging can be hard on aging joints so it might be a little high-impact for you. If you have specific joint problems, keep an eye on HTBM, as an article specifically for working out with joint problems is on the road map.
In the meantime, exercises that push your heart and lungs without stressing your joints include swimming, biking, and using machines like ellipticals. Incorporating more stretching into your routine, whether plain stretches or even taking up yoga or a martial art, can also help to improve your joint health to the point that some exercises may become easier as you age and exercise.
Research into “blue zones,” geographic regions with high populations living to over 100, has also stressed the importance of “moving naturally.” That is, having a more active lifestyle even if that doesn’t necessarily include deliberate exercise. So pick up hobbies that involve being active rather than limiting yourself to dedicated “workouts.”
How to Bulk Muscle as You Age
Now, for the meat and potatoes: how to navigate age and exercise with a focus on weight lifting lifting.
You can, and probably should, be thinking about lifting weights and building muscle – even as you age. For young people, bulking muscle is usually about aesthetics or practicality. These days, you’re probably not too worried about impressing people at the beach or being able to haul lumber. Although there’s a lot to be said about looking good and keeping up at work.
However, building muscle as you age and exercise has other health benefits too. First, muscle is metabolically active, so having more lean muscle mass can help to keep your body weight from fat down. Further, when your muscles get bigger, the bones beneath them get bigger. That’s called “Wolff’s Law” and it can help to combat wasting conditions like osteoporosis.
Further, lifting brings psychological benefits that combat some of the emotional changes that you might be encountering as you age and exercise. That’s particularly true if you work out with a friend, which HTBM recommends no matter how old you are. More on that in a moment.
You can’t be too old to lift weights, but you might have to approach it a little differently. If you’re coming to the game late, take notes. If you’re already lifting, hopefully the rest of this section will help you navigate this point in your journey through age and exercise.
Think About How You Lift
First off, while free weights have a tougher reputation, they’re also more dangerous in a number of ways particularly as you age and exercise. If you have been lifting for a while and you have an affinity for free weights, don’t fear them, but be aware of them as you work out.
If you’re new to lifting, consider going with a cable machine instead. They guide your form better, they’re safer to use and nicer on joints. Body resistance exercises like pushups and pullups are a good way to go too.
Think About How Much You Lift
Also if you’re new to lifting, this is a good time to determine your one-rep max. That is, the amount of weight that you can safely lift with proper form one time. For people really looking to bulk muscle, this number is used to determine the number of sets and reps to meet a goal. From the perspective of age and exercise, it’s more valuable as a personal benchmark.
If you’ve been lifting for a while, this is a good time to check in with your one-rep max for some favorite exercises to see how it might have changed. In either case, for younger lifters, the one-rep max is something to challenge. At this point in your lifting career, it becomes something to respect. In this new world of age and exercise, sometimes you move back to move forward.
Even if you don’t usually work out with a partner like the next section recommends, having a friend on deck when you check in on your one-rep-max is a good idea. Again, that goes for people of any age.
Think About Who You Lift With
No matter how old you are or what your health looks like, things can go wrong when working out. This is only one of any number of reasons that working out with a partner should be something to consider at this stage of your fitness journey if you don’t already have a workout buddy.
The relationship between age and exercise aside, working out with a partner can have loads of other physical and psychological benefits including
- Making you more likely to stick to your routine
- Introducing you to different knowledge and ideas
- Making your workout more enjoyable
- Providing a spotter and form critic.
You Can Age and Exercise Gracefully
Age and exercise can be a complicated combination. You may feel like you’re too old to exercise, or too old to need exercise. However, working out at any age has physical, mental, and emotional benefits that you’re never too old to enjoy.