FITNESS FOR AGING EXERCISERS

 

 

Successful aging has been linked to genetics and a healthy lifestyle that consists of proper nutrition and exercise, but what about the aging athlete who isn’t a stranger to activity? Research shows that as much as 50 percent of the declines in health due to aging are related to inactivity.What are some key considerations for seniors as their activity levels remain high, but their body’s physiologic response changes with age?

As baby boomers become more active and healthy living becomes a bit trendier, I’ve been receiving a lot of these questions from patients who endeavor to stay active as they refuse to let their age slow them down. Thus, I’ve put together some tips to help us, aging athletes, and age successfully!

1. Accept it

Whether athletic or not, the processes of aging are the same in all of us. Even with the healthiest lifestyle, we all undergo predictable changes in our body systems that include disease states and compromises in our performance. Our bodies are sure to change; accepting this inevitability will only help us adapt and adjust to these changes, while decreasing the likelihood for injury and/or impairment. Here are a few basic systemic changes to consider as “Father Time” knocks at each of our doors:

  • Nervous System
    • Decreased Sensation
    • Decreased Balance
  • Respiratory System
    • Decreased Vital Capacity/Breathing Capacity of Lungs: Maximum amount of air a person can exhale after maximum inhalation1
  • Cardiovascular System
    • Decreased Maximum Heart Rate (decreases by 5-10 beats per decade)1,4
    • Slower return to resting HR after and during exercise1,4
  • Musculoskeletal System
    • Decreased Bone Strength
    • Decreased Muscular Strength
    • Decreased Flexibility
  • Vision
    • Farsightedness
    • Relates to Balance/Coordination
  • Hearing Loss

For the aging athlete training and lifestyle must adapt. Something has to change to maintain or even improve performance. 

2. Turn it up

Any given sport or workout has three elements that can be manipulated in one’s fitness regimen to obtain the desired results: frequency, duration and intensity. Intensity is the operative word here – as we get older, the tendency is to trade in intensity for duration. However, as athletes, we need to do the very opposite in order to perform at a high level. Avoid the long, slow distances and incorporate exercises with an emphasis on muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance and power. Higher intensities over a shorter duration, 2-3 times a week will help to stimulate testosterone release, which helps maintain muscle mass.

3. Flex those muscles

The older you get, the more important strength training becomes. One of the more crippling effects of aging for athletes is the gradual loss of muscle mass, and the loss of strength that it entails. Athletes in sports that don’t require tremendous strength are particularly susceptible, says Burke, as they tend to try and get by without resistance training. When you are young, very often you can get away with it, but the older you get, the more important it becomes to train for strength specifically, no matter which sports you do.

Putting the muscles and bones under stress through lifting weights and even performing body-weight resisted exercises (such as push-ups, squats and lunges) help to promote bone and muscle health. This is essential in an effort to negate the decrease in bone density that comes with aging. Rebuilding bone and gaining muscle is still a possibility no matter what age we are!

4. Recover

Researchers have shown that sleeping too little leads to a host of problems from depressed immune function to decreased mental functioning. And according to Burke, skimping on sleep is also harmful to athletic performance, because during sleep the body secretes human growth hormone (HGH), which is a powerful agent of recovery and adaptation to training.

Less sleep means less HGH and therefore less freshness for the next day’s work out. Treat yourself to an extra half-hour or hour of sleep each night and you will feel 10 years younger.

Sleep and nutrition are directly linked to an athlete’s ability to recover from strenuous activity. The days of being able to perform at a high level on little sleep and/or a bad diet become fewer and fewer as we get older.

Sleep is essential because it is our body’s way of regenerating from the breakdown caused by the increased intensity of our exercise regimens. Adequate sleep is also linked to increased testosterone levels, which increases muscle and bone mass in men and women.

5. Nutrition

Nutrition is also integral in an aging athlete’s recovery and performance; food is fuel. Macronutrients and micronutrients are twin concerns as they relate to an athlete’s nutrition. It is crucial that macronutrients, such as carbohydrates and proteins, are replenished after competition or exercise. Carbohydrates are considered to be the athlete’s “Master Fuel” as they provide energy to 50 percent of any moderate to rigorous endurance workout. Proteins are essential as they are the building blocks of muscle and bone, as well as aide in the build and repair of tissues after breakdown. Micronutrients, in vitamins and minerals, are essential as they facilitate energy production and utilization from carbohydrate, fat and protein; transport oxygen and carbon dioxide; and regulate fluid balance.

A large body of clinical research also has shown that consuming the right nutrients in the right amounts immediately after exercise can enhance recovery substantially. Water, electrolytes, carbohydrate, and protein are needed most to rehydrate the body, restore muscle glycogen, and repair tissue damage.

Since most athletes experience appetite suppression after exercise, getting all of the needed nutrients by consuming one of the sports drinks that is designed especially for recovery. Choose one with a 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein, as more protein will retard the flow of nutrients into the bloodstream and less will result in a less pronounced insulin spike, hence slower restocking of glycogen stores.

6. Pump those antioxidants

Free-radical damage, also known as oxidative stress, is now known to be one of the primary components of aging. Unfortunately, athletes are even more prone to free-radical damage than non-athletes. For this reason, they need to be especially vigilant in consuming antioxidants, those vitamins and vitamin-like compounds that protect against and repair such damage.

Vitamins C and E are especially helpful to athletes, as controlled studies have shown they can dramatically reduce post-workout muscle soreness in the short term, in addition to minimizing long-term oxidative stress.

7. Hydrate

Water is arguably the most essential nutrient in the human diet. Water regulates our temperature and maintains several bodily functions such as food digestion, absorption of its nutrients and excretion of waste. Athletes of all ages need to be sure to hydrate before, during and after moderate to rigorous activity. Exercise, sports and environmental conditions can all impact fluid loss, which refers to expending more fluids than we take in. Research shows that one percent of fluid loss makes the heart beat 3-5 times greater per minute, which is especially significant in the aging population that will naturally have certain cardiac considerations.  It is not uncommon to lose a sense of thirst as we get older and certain medications may make it even more important to drink water. Thus hydration must be a concentrated effort.

8. Stretch more and better

Loss of flexibility is a natural effect of aging that can be counteracted through a program of daily stretching. However, quite apart from aging, the repetitive movements involved in practicing any sport for a long period of time results in muscular imbalances that get progressively more extreme.

These require targeted efforts to loosen and lengthen only those muscles that have become short and tight, because stretching all muscles equally will only take the imbalance to a higher level.

I encourage every athlete, but experienced ones especially, to identify their short and tight muscles and devote special efforts lengthening them through stretching.

Get in the Game

All in all, it is an unavoidable fact that the aging process causes a gradual decline in a person’s ability to adapt and adjust to their environment. While exercise and athletic activity certainly slows down this decline, it is imperative that aging athletes understand that they are not exempt to these bodily changes simply because they are active. Accepting this fact of life is not conceding defeat by any means, but it assists in developing and executing the game plan to aging successfully! Get in the game!

Older athletes have special exercise considerations due to the effects of aging on muscle and joint tissue, cardiovascular fitness, and other physical parameters. Use these training tactics to build and maintain your fitness as well as your ability to compete as you desire.

 

REFERENCES

  1. The aging athlete. The American Journal of Sports Medicine.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2667376.
  2. Training in the Aging Athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/fulltext/2007/06000/Training_in_the_Aging_Athlete.15.aspx.
  1. Karsten, Keller et al. Muscles Ligaments Tendons J. 2013 Oct-Dec; 3(4): 346–350. Published online 2014 Feb 24.
  2. Jackson, Kathryn. “Fluid, Electrolytes and Hydration Needs of Masters Athletes.” Nutrition and Performance in Masters Athletes (2014): 171-82.
  3. Milanovic, Zoran et al. Age-related decrease in physical activity and functional fitness among elderly men and women. Clin Interv Aging. 2013; 8:549 –556.

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