Staying fit over 50

A friend in her mid-sixties recently told me that an MRI scan showed signs of premature aging in her knee. She is fit and carries no extra weight; she completed the Comrades ultramarathon three times and the Cape Town Cycle Tour more than once; now she walks three times a week and does yoga on alternate days.

Another 60-plus friend who’s been exercising throughout her adult life, complained about excruciating pain in her lower back; she trained six times a week and focused on strength and aerobic exercises for about 90 minutes a session; her doctor has identified over-exercising as the cause of her back pain.

Both women are now questioning whether the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 70 minutes of vigorous exercise per week is still beneficial beyond 50.

Practicing meditation and yoga. Image: Yogi Madhav/Unsplash

Lindsey Parry, official Comrades Marathon coach and Runners’ World columnist, says there is no reason one shouldn’t continue to exercise after 50. In fact, cross-training and maintaining one’s fitness, strength and flexibility become even more important as we age. The reality is that as we get older our bodies become slower; according to an article in Harvard Health Publishing in 2016, we lose 3% of muscle mass every decade from the age of about 30.

“Athletes often find that once they strike 50, things start going a little south. The mistake many people make is to think that to maintain one’s fitness one has to train harder and harder. In the process one picks up more and more injuries and eventually stops training. The problem is compounded once one returns to exercise and tries to pick up where one left off. Looking after one’s body is crucial. It is important to build up the strength and fitness base gradually. Then stepping up one’s fitness level to manage the 12-hour Comrades, without injuring oneself, is possible.

Read in Daily Maverick: How to Get Over Being Young: A Rough Guide to life after 50

“The secret to staying optimally fit as we age lies in adapting one’s training programme. With a suitable schedule of strength, aerobics and flexibility exercises one can continue to achieve one’s goals and prevent or even turn around signs of muscle loss without harming oneself. As we age, building muscle is crucial. Becoming stronger improves one’s ability to exercise and in doing so, maintain a fit and healthy lifestyle. As a result of hormonal changes, building muscle takes longer and our body needs more time to recover.

“It is a misnomer that the physical act of exercising can cause the early onset of osteoarthritis or joint pain. It is doing the incorrect amount of training coupled with previous injuries that can cause problems. If one has a history of joint problems, then any extreme sport is bad. But doing nothing will cause joints to seize faster than if one does moderate exercise,” Parry explains.

Derek Archer, a conditioning coach and owner of Fitpro, agrees and says to build muscle is a process of gradually overloading the body and then allowing it to recover.

Once we start strength training, three things happen: neural pathways that have become dormant are re-established and the nervous system is reactivated. If we do more training than our bodies are used to, there is some muscle damage that causes muscle fibers to break. During recovery these fibers are rebuilt and heal stronger than before. This process of overloading, and repairing damage stimulates the muscle-building process, and we become stronger. It is during the repair and recovery stage that the actual adaptation or getting stronger happens. If we exercise before the body has been able to repair itself, we predispose ourselves to injury and slow down adaptation.

To improve one’s muscle mass one needs to build up to about three 30- to 60-minute sessions a week depending on one’s goals; recovery takes between 20 and 48 hours.

Nico de Villiers, strength and conditioning coach for the Stormers, adds that the first thing one should do is to establish where one is on the fitness scale. For this, a qualified fitness coach could provide valuable assistance. The lower on the scale, the more careful one should be; the easier one starts, the less likely one is to hurt oneself and the more sustainable the exercise is. De Villiers recommends splitting the exercises: focus on upper body training one day, followed by lower body the next; this ensures that we cover all muscle groups and allow for the necessary recovery. Exercising every muscle group twice a week is sufficient.

Parry says some tiredness or discomfort after exercising is okay, but one shouldn’t be in pain. If pain interferes with normal activity such as walking, it means we should take it easy for a while; the rule of thumb is to start increasing one’s load by about 10% after a fortnight.

In addition to strength exercises, it is important to include aerobics exercises such as running, cycling or swimming in one’s exercise programme.

Parry recommends two to three sessions a week ranging between 30 and 60 minutes. As one becomes fitter, one could increase this to three to four sessions depending on one’s goals; but as always, allowing for recovery is vital.

One hard workout should be followed by two to three easy ones. Parry adds not pacing oneself is often one of the biggest mistakes athletes make. It is important to do a hard workout followed by a really easy one, so that one has the strength to tackle the hard ones properly. If done consistently, one will become fitter and stronger over time and avoid injury.

Archer also believes that training in the correct heart rate zone helps to ensure that one trains efficiently. To get the maximum benefits of aerobic exercises one should train in Zone 2 which means working at an intensity of about 70% of one’s maximum heart rate. Working at a higher intensity has no additional physiological benefits and could cause damage. There are several ways to determine what this means: the simplest way is to subtract one’s age from 220; that is a general guideline for the maximum heart rate; once this is established, a general guideline is to work at 70% of one’s maximum heart rate. Another way of doing it, is to use the Karvonen method which is regarded as the gold standard.

In conclusion, Parry says that many studies have shown that moderate exercise and adequate recovery have many physical, psychological and neurological benefits, especially as we age.

Consistently pushing oneself beyond 70% 80% could result in overtraining syndrome (OTS) or burnout. Training puts stress on the body which affects one’s physiological and central nervous systems. Common signs of overtraining are underperforming, consistently feeling tired, an increase in one’s resting heart rate and an inability to get one’s heart rate up during exercise, sleep problems, irritability, impaired concentration, depression, changes in appetite and a weakened immune system.

In addition to exercise, one should follow a healthy diet. In the same way that you need to be aware that the nature, intensity, frequency and duration of your training program should be modified as you age, so your diet needs to be adjusted in small but significant ways. Without necessarily shifting to a high-protein, low-carb diet, there should be a slight shift to an increase in protein intake and decrease in carbohydrates as one ages, especially if one maintains an active lifestyle. DM/ML

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