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1st Jul

2009

Exercise Philosophy over a Lifespan

Essentially everyone agrees, that exercise is vital to promoting good health throughout life, allowing us to stay physically active, achieving athletic success, and having less pain. However, exercise can be a double edged sword, and have the opposite effect, if performed incorrectly, taking into account our physical state, individual physiology and age. Therefore, to produce the desired results, exercise needs to be modified from person to person, during episodes of injury or illness, and as we get older.

CHILDHOOD YEARS

During our early years in life, up until puberty, our nervous system develops rapidly, and exercise during this time frame can significantly improve our neuromuscular coordination for a lifetime. Most exercise experts around the world agree that children who are exposed to a variety of sports and physical activities, rather than specializing early in one sport, have the best chance of excelling as adult athletes (there are a few exceptions, in sports such as gymnastics and figure skating).

I believe that regular early exposure to many activities which may promote improved balance and motor control also allow people to engage in more physical activities later in life, and therby add enjoyment and quality of life.

High intensity strengthening exercise before musculoskeletal maturity is associated with certain risks, such as injuries to the bony growth plates, or tendon-bone junctions. Furthermore, boys cannot build much muscle bulk before puberty even if lifting heavy weights, since they do not yet produce enough testosterone.

YOUNG ADULTHOOD

From the mid/late teenage years through the 20s or for some even 30s, we are at our physical peak. This is obviously where most athletes produce their best results, and where non-athletes can handle various physical activities with the least effort and physical discomfort. People can “get away” with being a little out of shape, without any apparent serious ill effects. However, things start to change rather quickly for deconditioned people, especially if they are becoming overweight (which is an epidemic in the US), already in their 20s and which may set them up for health problems later in life.

EARLY MIDDLE AGE

From the late 30s and progressively more so in the 40s and 50s, a gradual physical decline follows, where we start to lose neuromusculoskeletal cells. As a result, without exercise training, we start to lose muscle mass and strength, bone strength, tendon/ligament strength, and balance or position sense. With age also comes thinning of the cartilage in our joints and wear and tear changes (degeneration) of various tissues. This all makes us more vulnerable to injury and to developing painful conditions. It also can make it more difficult to participate in activities that we enjoy, such as hiking, physical labor, and recreational sports activities.

However, exercise can significantly slow down many of these age related changes, keep our weight down, and prevent many common illnesses.

Because we all develop some tissue wear and tear, especially by the time we reach our late 40s and 50s, it is best to modify our exercises, in particular if we are genetically predisposed to developing e.g. arthritis. Too high exercise intensity, such as regular high impact, or high intensity strengthening or explosive exercise, often accelerate such degenerative changes and would shorten our lifespan of physical well being. It is then smart to e.g. decrease the weight resistance somewhat, instead increase the exercise repetitions, and perform them with slower speed, and include more low impact activities. We also need more rest between exercise sessions, and less total work output during workouts, for sufficient recovery afterward.

LATE MIDDLE AGE

For people who continue to stay active, I like to refer to them as middle aged also in their 60s and even 70s. However, the physical decline now naturally accelerates. This can e.g. be seen in the times of masters long distance runners, which can still be quite good in their 50s, but which start to slow considerably in their 60s, and to a greater extent in their 70s. Regardless, regular exercise training will minimize such a decline.

Now it becomes even more important to modify our exercise intensity to properly balance build up versus break down of tissues. However, it is still important to do strengthening exercise, since we selectively lose more fast twitch strength muscles than slow twitch endurance muscles, as we age.

OLD AGE

People who have taken care of themselves all life, have reasonably good genetics, and have been fortunate enough not to suffer any serious accidents or illness, may not reach this phase until their late 70s or even 80s, whereas others, especially if chronically deconditioned or clinically obese, may be physically old already in their early 60s. For the former people, they may still be able to enjoy e.g. traveling, yard work, walking for exercise, exercise classes, swimming, golf, biking and even light skiing. Strengthening and agility exercise in this age population have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of falling and sustaining life threatening fractures.

Since exercise now requires more effort, and activities often are impeded by stiffness or some discomfort, it takes even more discipline to stay active. However, research has indicated that people who do, and who also have a social network of family and friends, tend to live longer lives.

With best wishes for a lifetime of good health,

Gunnar

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