Every second of every day we are lucky enough to walk this earth, we are, like it or not, aging. And that passage of time makes itself known in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
While deepening laugh lines on the outside are a give-away, it’s often the slow and not-always-visible chipping away of muscle mass, power, strength, and endurance which are the more significant signs of time marching on.
That and lot of aches and pains. As these rather humbling physiological hiccups begin to add up, the question becomes, how to slow the slide – or prevent it altogether?
The answer: staying physically active! Here’s why it’s one of the very best anti-aging antidotes:
Make movement your anti-aging medicine.
Your body is built to move: to walk, pivot, turn, lunge in multiple directions, push, pull, hoist, stand, sit and get back up again. With regular movement, your joints stay lubricated and resistant to injury — bone, connective tissue and muscle moving fluidly, without soreness or restriction.
At a cellular level, studies (Shammas, 2011) indicate that keeping the body moving can add several years to your life, in part by protecting the length of your telomeres, the end-caps of your DNA, which shorten with age. When you don’t move enough, the sedentary stasis ages you more quickly, putting you on track for increased risk of cancer and depression; lower cognitive ability; too-high blood sugar levels (even if you’re at a healthy weight); diminished sex life and compromised reproductive health; sleep disruption and insomnia; disk degeneration and resulting back pain.
That’s quite a list! So, your mission is to make movement a priority, to keep your body youthful, resilient and creak-free.
Move it, don’t lose it – become physical person.
When you think “exercise,” you probably think hitting the gym or the running track, hard, on the regular. For most people that’s fine but only up until their late 30s and early 40s. That’s when you should likely ease up on the hard-core workouts and, instead, work on integrating as much physical activity into your everyday life as possible, every single day, all day long. A fully active day is more beneficial than an hour at the gym, especially if that hour is squeezed in-between an 8-hour sedentary desk job and a few more nighttime hours on the couch. No disrespect to traditional gym time, and everyone should spend some time there, but the real key to aging well is to be active every chance you get, so, less about heavy exertion and more about frequency of movement. View every moment as a potential opportunity for more movement, be it walking to work; cycling to appointments; doing errands on foot; taking the stairs up instead of the elevator; doing body weight exercises between Zoom calls, whatever little extra moves you can squeeze into your day.
Avoid injury – and age more slowly.
Injury, besides dragging your overall health down, triggers the low-grade inflammation that can age you before your time. The key is to adapt your fitness routine as your body changes, to be open to gentler workouts, and if something hurts, don’t do it. Think about conserving, maintaining, and preventing injury, aka ‘do no harm.’ Sounds obvious, but a lot of us ignore pain and push through. That mentality is not a great prescription for aging well. Remember, the right approach is constant, consistent, dependable activity and workouts that you can adapt to preserve and protect muscles and joints, not pummel them (Mayer et al., 2011).
Trigger longevity gene pathways with ‘microbursts’ of physical intensity.
One of my favorite ways to support the anti-aging process is with activities that encourage hormesis, in other words, applying brief, mild, and progressive doses of physical stress to produce a positive, health-and-longevity-building response.
One way to spark hormesis and stimulate your longevity gene pathways is to pepper your workout with short bursts of serious effort. And by serious effort, I mean working and breathing so hard that you can’t chat while you’re biking, swimming, rowing or power-walking up a hill (or whatever activity you choose).
Working out in a way that alternates between microbursts and recovery is sometimes called high-intensity interval training (HIIT) – a complicated-sounding but actually deceptively simple format you can apply to pretty much any type of exercise, following this basic format:
Ramp up for 1 minute.
Go hard for 1 minute.
Drop back down to a comfortable pace for 3 minutes.
If you’re new to HIIT, try doing three microburst rounds following this pattern, within your normal workout routine.
As you get more comfortable with it, you can add more high-intensity intervals throughout your sessions. It will make your workout fly by and turn monotonous activities — like swimming laps — into a kind of game. Even better, it’s great for your body, as the small physical stress of HIIT promotes “autophagy,” the body’s youth-supporting cellular repair and cleaning system.
Make your muscles work – and keep working them.
Among other things, we need our muscles to keep us upright and to enable us to move through the world. So, working to keep muscles strong and supple is an important key to avoiding frailty and aging well. But, truth be told, after 40, maintaining muscle can be an uphill battle, as we tend to lose about 1% of muscle mass with each passing year. To combat the losses, at least twice a week, add strength training into your fitness mix, be it with weights or any activity that offers resistance, like stretchy bands, balls, dumbbells, bars, cords, exercise machines, or your own body weight. Opt for more reps with lighter resistance as you age, to keep injury at bay.
Upping your strength training, however, doesn’t mean skipping the cardio. Though cardio workouts don’t necessarily help with muscle mass, they do a lot of other important things, like increasing blood flow and the number of mitochondria in the cells. That translates to more oxygen being brought to the muscles and more energy being generated within them. That means more endurance – and your longevity genes get turned on (or “upregulated”) to boot!
Loosen up for longevity.
There’s a reason why stretching studios have been popping up all over town these past few years, and it’s a simple one — left to our own devices, few of us stretch enough. Combine that with a harder or longer workout than our bodies may be ready for and tight muscles and connective tissue are sure to follow, not to mention pain and injury when you push it too far.
So, like it or not, before exercise, take a few minutes to do a few gentle stretches, then start your chosen activity at a slow pace to ease into your swimming, biking, lifting, or yoga routine, upping the intensity over time. Give your body a chance to warm up and ramp up, and then stretch again at the end of your workout. The fewer injuries you sustain, the better for the long-term health of your muscles and joints, and the easier it will be for you to stand tall for years to come.
Roll the years away.
Got muscle pain? It might not be your muscles causing the trouble, but rather tight, constricted fascia. Fascia is the thin, tough casing of connective tissue that encases the muscles. Like most everything else we’re talking about here, it tightens with age, so you need to loosen it up or else suffer the painful consequences. Stretching doesn’t really get to the fascia but foam-rolling does, so if you have one in the back of the closet, now’s the time to get it out and start rolling.
Too tight fascia needs pressure to help it release and a foam roller plus your body weight is an excellent way to do that. In my book, it’s as important to the body as exercise. You should be rolling out your muscles—quads, glutes, calves, deltoids, pectorals—a few times a week for five or ten minutes a shot to help ease any existing pain and to set you up better going forward. Rolling loosens the fascia and allows muscles to move more smoothly, which means you’ll be able to prevent all sorts of injuries as you age. (Yes, we’re all more prone to injury as we get older.) Because it makes your body mechanics more efficient, rolling can be your first line of defense against needing commonly recommended surgeries like hip or knee replacements. In short, make rolling your go-to, feel-good, youth-preserving habit.
Shammas, M.A. (2011). Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 14(1), pp.28–34.
Mayer, F., Scharhag-Rosenberger, F., Carlsohn, A., Cassel, M., Müller, S. and Scharhag, J. (2011). The Intensity and Effects of Strength Training in the Elderly. Deutsches Aerzteblatt Online. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3117172/.