50 is the new 40 (perhaps, the new 30). We can reap so many benefits from our exercise at any age but unquestionably, our workouts become increasingly important as we get older. Encouragingly, we can perform, compete, and reap health-protective benefits at a very high level well beyond 50. The following three foci represent the most important tactical shifts we need to make in our workouts as we age. These three foci serve to counteract specific age-related realities (notably, a reduction in VO2 max, a loss of Type 2/Fast Twitch muscle fibers, and a decreased efficiency in assimilating protein).
1. Perform cardio at a higher level of intensity. As we age, our “VO2 max” (a clinical measurement of our aerobic capacity that is also strongly correlated with all-cause mortality) decreases. One of the contributing factors to our VO2 max is our maximum heart rate. As we age, our maximum heart rate decreases. Even proper exercise can’t prevent this decline. Although our maximum heart rate and VO2 max decline, we can still structure our exercise to maximize our VO2 max at any age. Higher levels of intensity (higher heart rate), and shorter duration cardio sessions are the key to improving our VO2 max. This can be done with interval training or steady-state training. It generally cannot be done by going on a long walk or bike ride at a conversational pace. Step count and overall physical activity are important, but not nearly as important as working at a high heart rate for a short period of time to drive the VO2 max. Action: integrate one key interval workout into your week. After a brief warm-up, bike, elliptical, row, walk on an incline, or run intervals, work hard for one minute, and then recover for two minutes (doing the same activity at a very slow pace). Repeat this five to eight times.
2. Strength train (and use heavy enough weights to get to muscle failure). As we age, we lose muscle. (Sarcopenia is defined as the age-related wasting away of muscle.) Muscle is correlated with strength, balance, mobility, endocrine function, avoidance of all-cause mortality, and the prevention of a host of chronic diseases. Training to muscle failure (the point at which we can’t do another repetition with perfect form) increases our “fast-twitch muscle fiber” recruitment. These fibers aren’t defined primarily by their speed. Instead, they are defined by their power. As we age, we lose more fast-twitch muscle fibers (compared to slow-twitch) and this contributes to greater reductions in muscle strength and power. Action: train to muscle failure and, on the last few reps, attempt to lift the weight “fast” (it won’t actually move quickly, because you are fatigued. The key is to have the intent to move the weight quickly.)
3. Increase protein intake. This doesn’t mean “eat more calories.” Instead, we need to shift our calorie intake from carbohydrates and fats to slightly more protein. As we age, we don’t assimilate protein as efficiently. A mountain of research indicates that strength training combined with increased protein intake aids in muscle strength, muscle mass, and improved body composition (the percentage of our body weight that is fat versus muscle). Action: Aim to intake 0.7-1.0 grams of protein per pound of body mass a day.
Important side note: My observation is, not only do people over 50 NOT adhere to the three foci outlined above, but they actually move in the opposite direction. They tend to focus on longer, lower-intensity cardio: they lift lighter weights (or avoid weights altogether) and they tend to consume less protein.