The Aging Process – Live a Vibrant and Active Life as You Get Older

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Every bit of me agrees that age is only a number. We are not defined by how many years on earth we have been here, rather we live by how we feel. As a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Senior Fitness Specialist and once Silver Sneaker instructor, I’m inspired by those still moving and participating in activity with a young, enthusiast attitude and with mobility that would amaze any skeptic. They say, “If you don’t use it, you lose it”, and there is certainly truth to the statement!

The aches and pains of aging are a harsh reality, especially to a former athlete like myself. As a college basketball player, I could run, jump and last all day long. Now, although I’m as active as ever, I have taken on a different modality of fitness. I think this is a humbling process but having a “refusing to stop” attitude is what makes the “ageless” client irresistible to want to help. Instead of saying, “I can’t do that anymore”, one should say, “How can I do this right here, right now with the body I’ve got?” Where there is a will there is a way and there are modifications and alternatives for every exercise and every body of every age. So, put the age card excuse away, because this trainer ain’t having it. To me, snail pace is better than standing still (more likely sitting still).

Regular exercise has so many benefits for us all, seniors included. Time is actually on our side once we retire, so we can focus on health and well-being. As we accumulate years in our lives, there are inherent functions in our bodies that do operate at a different pace or level. Here are some things to consider:

  • A major fraction of total daily energy demand arises from resting metabolism, and it is thus important to note that resting metabolism decreases as you get older, by about 10% from early adulthood to the age of retirement, and a further 10% subsequently.
  • The maximal oxygen intake declines by about 5 ml.kg-1.min-1 per decade from 25 to 65 years of age, with some possible acceleration thereafter. It is difficult to be certain how much of this loss is inevitable, and the extent to which the decline results from a progressive decrease of habitual physical activity; ordinary people certainly become more sedentary as they age and even older athletes usually reduce the rigor of their training.
  • Strength peaks around 25 years of age, plateaus through 35 or 40 years of age, and then shows an accelerating decline, with 25% loss of peak force by the age of 65 years. Luckily, Muscle strength can be greatly improved in as little as 8 weeks using resistance training, even in 90-year-old subjects (Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science, T.D.Fahey (Editor).

Adding to these items, sensory functions change like hearing, eye-sight, and balance. The risk of falls increases because of this and response time is slower. Unfortunately, if muscle is being lost due primarily to lack of use, then fat is replacing these areas. Overall strength and endurance also decreases. When these physical declines occur, the mind does become influenced. It is difficult not to feel defeated or depressed when one is not able to do the activities or go the places they once did. This can feel very isolating. Fear of starting again or injury always lurk around the corner.

That means it’s time to rally up and combat these issues, warding off further increases. It’s never too late to start, but don’t delay. I truly enjoy working with seniors and even among this population there are different stages of activity that is appropriate. As a child, my grandmother did her walking every day, twice per day for at least 3 miles. I have current clients now that I aspire to be at when I reach their age. Their attitude towards fitness generates their output and success. Having taught many senior fitness classes and age-appropriate water aerobics, those participants who engage regardless of ability reap benefits from both the physical and social elements of the environment. Music, laughter, and movement are a wonderful combination. Try to become united with a new circle of positive friends that enjoy becoming the best versions of themselves is a recipe for health and wellness. There becomes a sense of accountability and teamwork to this process.

Let someone like Ernestine Shepard fuel your fire. She holds the record for the Guinness Book of World Record’s “Oldest Performing Female Bodybuilding”. At 79, she’s more active than she ever was. Ernestine has completely transformed her body. She’s now a personal trainer and gets up at 4am daily to complete all of her own workouts before she helps others. She works out 5 days per week and wants to inspire other seniors to do the same. Imagine looking better in a bathing suit at 79 than you did in your 20s! Slowing down isn’t in her vocabulary. I wonder if I could keep up during a workout with her. I admire her passion to help others and how the way she took charge and helped herself.

There are even sports leagues for seniors. Basketball and softball are very popular. I can remember my dad playing in what he called, “The Old Man’s League” for basketball which as the years went by went from 50 and older to 60 and older and so on. There are Senior Olympics too. Most gyms offer senior classes and most living facilities for the elderly encourage participating in their outings and programs. The resources are there, but like anyone else, the motivation needs to come from within. Put away the pride of a 20-year-old in his/her prime, and embrace your current state of being. The glory days are over, now it’s the years to not have to take life so serious. You have earned the time to take care of yourself fully and completely now.

Maintaining a sense of independence is importance to us as we age. Becoming dependent on the care of others isn’t the ideal home-life. Seniors (and I have specifically avoided placing a number on what a senor is considered), need to work on being able to perform their day-to-day tasks themselves as long as they can. This means participating in exercise can help ward off muscle atrophy, osteoporosis, lack of balance and coordination and decreased flexibility. Aches and pains might feel like the Tin Man needing some oil at first, but soon enough, range of motion will increase and simple tasks like standing and sitting won’t feel so taxing. No one wants to miss out on being an amazing grandparent. I can remember my grandfather saying he didn’t want to be a burden to anyone so he would just miss my game or not go to dinner with us. It’s understandable that as we lose loved ones over the years, we don’t really want to try as hard or feel like there is reason to try. But those of us who still are here want our seniors to be with us as long as possible.

Even exercises in a chair with light dumbbells will help build a foundation for muscular endurance. I always make sure clients have assistance if balance is lacking, are aware of their surrounding area in case of a fall, and use the RPE method. Rate of Perceived Exertion is a scale of 1-10, with 10 being maximum output, which is used to check in with seniors during exercise. A response of 3 means I can probably increase the repetitions, sets, or weight, but a response of 9 means let’s let the heart rate come down before moving forward. Another important reminder is to eat prior to the workout, especially when medications are more frequently used among seniors. In general, pills on an empty stomach never feels great. Exercises don’t have to be complex, even simple movements like stepping up and down from a slightly elevated platform, pushing a ball in and out from chest level, or playing catch with a soft ball, increase coordination, response time, and still release those positive endorphins.

Choosing a healthy lifestyle can help reverse some of the normal aging process. Physical activity can help a senior with, “mental sharpness and mood” and helps ward off, “coronary artery disease, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, type-2 diabetes, and cancer” (reference). So why wouldn’t one exercise?

Age is only number of how many years one has been on this earth. Many health insurance agencies offer discounts and cover senior fitness, which is an advantage that needs to be used. This is especially true when a fixed income comes into play. Seniors need to be open to the idea of change, as we all do when trying to move in a positive direction. I know my grandfather who lived to be 94 didn’t grow up in a time when gyms existed or weights were lifted. Physical activity was taking care of the home-front or agriculture, and manual labor was normal. Entertainment wasn’t a click away, it meant going out and actually doing something. When I became a personal trainer, he found much of what I was doing to be so foreign. In fact, some seniors may have never belonged to an organized gym before.

Starting someone at step one is so important. Seniors need to find the direction and guidance tailored to their bodies’ needs, make sure that adequate nutrition is in place, seek the approval of a doctor before starting any exercise program, make sure hydration is met, and then get moving! The human body is incredibly resilient. It’s never too late to start. You are given ONE body, so take the challenge upon yourself to push that expiration date out as far as possible. Find the Ernestine Shepard in you, lace up those silver sneakers, and start the fitness journey to your continued ageless health!

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About Author

Megan Johnson McCullough

My name is Megan Johnson McCullough and I have a Master's degree in Physical Education and Health Science. My motto is that every BODY deserves to become the best versions of themselves. I have been a trainer for 12 years and have accumulated many certifications, but most proudly becoming an elite NASM Master Trainer. I am also a professional natural bodybuilder and member of Team USA. See my profile page for more information!

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