Slow the Aging Cycle on Strength, Power, and Cardiovascular Fitness
Children and young adults between the ages of five and 20 often participate in sports or physical activity without incorporating training regimens into their routine. Clearly, the body is naturally capable of performing strength- and power-based activities, so why is it so unusual to see a 60- or 70-year-old surfing, water skiing, or mountain climbing. Why don’t we see more older adults playing kickball, basketball, soccer or other activities commonly associated with the youth? Unfortunately, we tend to experience declines in strength and power, but this can be slowed with the introduction of resistance training for older individuals. Activities that promote muscular strength and power can help maintain these important components of fitness and performance, while engaging in frequent physical activity allows older people to maintain their cardiovascular fitness (CRF). And while they may not appreciate it now, optimizing cardiovascular fitness during the early stages of maturation will also benefit the young as they age.
Starting early is the easiest way to gain and maintain CRF. Sedentary individuals reach maximal CRF between the ages of 17-20 before beginning a decline of approximately 1% a year (10% per decade). To put this into perspective, a sedentary 20-year-old male who reaches a VO2Max of 45 ml/kg/min-1 but does not incorporate physical activity into his daily routine will see his VO2Max drop to 30 ml/kg/min-1 by age 50, a decline of approximately 30%. At 45 ml/kg/min-1, the average male can participate and tolerate most activities, but at 30 ml/kg/min-1, the workout intensity equals the warm-up of a fit person. On the other hand, an active individual who makes a concerted effort to achieve higher levels of CRF while young may actually continue to improve into their late twenties, attaining levels of 60-70 ml/kg/min-1. Even if they reduce or stop exercising at age thirty and experience the same 10% per decade decline, it will take them until their mid-sixties to decline to the same VO2Max their sedentary counterpart experienced by the age of 50. What’s more, if they opt to continue training at higher intensities throughout their adult life, they may have a VO2Max of 45 ml/kg/min in their fifties, more than twice the age of the sedentary person who peaked at that level of CRF in their twenties. This underscores the importance of reaching high levels of physical condition while young, then switching to an emphasis on strength and power later in life. Without adequate strength and power, people become too weak to enjoy life; they lose muscle, which affects their ability to perform everyday tasks, and ultimately takes away their independence. Youth is associated with, among other things, a reduced risk for death and a responsive physiological system. A person with a healthy physiological system has captured the key components of youth: staying muscularly strong and maintaining a fit cardiovascular system.
While most individuals will choose to use standard aerobic training to improve CRF, there are other avenues that support overall improvements. Steady-state training is always a good starting point before adding in the intervals that provide the higher return, but a half hour on the treadmill is not the only option. For those individuals who want to optimize both anaerobic and aerobic systems, sprint-based training and metabolic circuits are effective. A cross-training effect can be attained with one day of aerobic intervals, one day of sprinting, and one day of metabolic circuits per week. This distribution will help prevent the muscles from adapting too heavily to the aerobic system, preventing catabolism and force decline, while still providing increased oxygen delivery in muscle and improved stroke volume at the myocardium (heart).
For non-diseased, aging, and older adults between the ages of 50-75 years, the emphasis should shift to maintaining existing levels of cardiorespiratory fitness while increasing the time spent in the weight room. Sarcopenia, or age-related atrophy of fast-twitch muscle, directly affects the loss of performance function. Individuals beyond middle age need to add in more power-based and compound exercises to their weekly regimens. While the idea of power is intimidating for some, the reality is that adequate preparatory work and appropriate training intensities will assure safe participation. At the lowest level, rapid chair stands, concentric medicine ball throws, and low level ballistics can be used, even by those in their seventies. For those in their fifties and sixties, individual specific lifts and ballistics can help accelerate improvements. Ballistic steps, low-level bounds, and even height-appropriate box jumps add fun to the program while making the program effective. Progress from efficiency to mastery and from difficulty to speed (e.g., step up and down, add resistance, make it ballistic). Certainly, everyone needs some aspect of each fitness-related component throughout life, but cooperating with Mother Nature will go a long way toward maintaining quality of life into the later years.