Same old, same old… if you want to get old in good shape

Exercise, Everyday, Health, Fitness, Training

Go ahead, make a move! Make it over and over again…

I know, I said I would write about physiology next. But that will have to wait just a little longer.

Today’s post will sound like I’m repeating myself, and of course it is a little the case.

In my defense, it is a well-known fact of communication that in order for your message to get through, and for it to be believed, it must be repeated many times. (Preferably by more than one independent “sources,” though that never stopped anyone. Just think of the persuasion success the American leadership had a few years ago about weapons of mass destruction…)

So while I continue learning about physiology (I’m taking an online course, among other things) and clarifying my thinking about how to get that message across effectively, today I’m inviting you to review some recent news items about the importance of fitness for long-term health.

(Added note: I know most bloggers would have split this up in 2 or 3 topics. I’m not most bloggers because I prefer to see things as they fit together, not apart. And I think most people are capable of taking a bit of extra time to read a slightly longer post, instead of three short ones. Like my coaching, my blogging is about quality, not quantity…)

In the News

There has not been anything ground-breaking in the news lately; the artificial conflict between maintaining (or returning to) a healthy weight through diet alone versus exercising more (while being careful what we eat) has been raging. Because most folks on the “food only” side are clearly peddling books and special diets, I’m not even going to talk about what ridiculous stuff has been said on that side of the “debate.”

Instead, you should keep in mind that the best way to increase the odds of being healthy for a long time is through exercising a lot, and being careful about the food (not too much, mostly from plants) we ingest. That’s the “same old, same old” part of my message.

In support of that, you should read an interesting article about how many of the health problems of aging are due to inactivity, not “just” getting old. This is exactly what I mean when writing about muscles being extremely important, not just for metabolic reasons, but to keep bones and brains healthy.

Basically, to be healthy and active well into old age, you need to use your muscles more. The thing is, as one of my favorite authors on the subject has recently added, you don’t even need to do a whole lot in order to reap the benefits. That’s a key point about the approach I embrace and promote: balance is more healthy than excess.

Exercise, Health, Fitness, Training, Marathon

Running the New York Marathon in 2013.

For instance, while I say that we should all move a lot more than we currently do, there are some who say that we should all be training like professional triathletes, 25 or more hours per week. And others say we should not move at all, and instead restrict what we eat in a radical way.

I’m clearly not on the side of diet restrictions without any exercise, and I’ve run ultra-marathons and I do an ironman distance triathlon each year “just to stay in shape,” but even I would not pretend that such a level of training is sustainable for everyone. Although not sustainable, it may be something to shoot for, or, at least, going well beyond the “standard” recommendations of some 150 minutes per week of exercise, remains a very good idea.

Which brings me (finally) to a third tidbit of news about those who have been clamoring that doing marathons and intense training for more than 150 minutes per week were actually causing damage instead of doing good for their health. In light of new research, it seems they are admitting that our bodies can really benefit from a lot more exercise than they previously allowed for.

Moving More, Up to A Point

But keep in mind that, based on the research, there is a diminishing return to be had from increasing the activity level. And at some point, while it may not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer (which is what the study was concerned with), you up the risk of injury, which is not really taken into consideration from what I’ve read so far.

As reported in Runner’s World:

When mortality rates were adjusted for exercise levels, the researchers found the lowest rate among those who exercised about three to five times the amount recommended by federal guidelines (i.e., 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like running). However, the increased benefit of working out three to five times more than the guidelines was modest, the researchers wrote.

More importantly to serious runners, there was no evidence of harm at ten or more times the recommended minimum.

At three to five times the federal guidelines, you are in marathon and short-distance triathlon training territory. Maybe up to a decent half-ironman. Nothing crazy. And sustainable, if part of a lifestyle choice that features living a long and healthy life as its Purpose.

And you can go well beyond that, if you are careful.

Same Old Advice (Summary)

In summary, allow me to repeat what little wisdom I can impart, based on what I’ve learned and what more knowledgeable people have said before me:

  1. Move, a lot, because our bodies are at their best when they do.
  2. Eat food, not too much, mostly from plants.
  3. Obtain, and follow, the advice of a coach (especially if you are going to train seriously for something like a marathon or triathlon (or any endurance- or speed- or strength-focused sport).
  4. Steer clear of excess and obsession; strive for balance in all things.

Oh, and I should probably have added “stay tuned.”

Because I’m bound to come back to this subject, and provide more specific advice over time.

After all, much like with training, repetition is what eventually gets the message through… and turns it into a no-brainer.

Running, Marathon, Fitness, Health, Training, Exercise

A bunch of superheroes with their capes, or tired marathon runners done running?

Photos by the author at various events.

Use it, or lose it (a.k.a. Why bother exercise?)

Exercise, Aging, Everyday, Weight Control, Muscle Mass, Bone Density

Ready to take the plunge? If you don’t now, you may not be able to later.

Are you trying to exercise more? Or at all?

Has it been on your mind for a while? Perhaps you used to, but as the years passed, you went from “active” to “weekend warrior,” and ultimately to “I just don’t have the time.”

Perhaps you weren’t all that active as a youth, but as you went through your 20s and 30s you’ve noticed the loss of your effortless youthful figure.

No matter your story, you know you should be getting moving more. You feel it in your bones (quite literally, as it turns out).

You are not alone. And you are not alone in the struggle, either.

But have you stopped and really explored why it is so important to exercise, or to exercise more than you currently do? In that deceptively simple questioning might be hiding a profound source of Purpose

That is the question

Why is it important to you to exercise regularly?

Is it because you think it will make you look better (or a certain way)? To control your weight, perhaps?

Maybe it is to lose a few extra pounds accumulated over a few years of too much sitting behind a desk, in a car, and on a couch. Or all three, in turn.

Any of those may be a valid ultimate objective; they are certainly valued to varying degrees by different people. Yet they are not the reason why regular exercise is a good idea.

Leaving aside my own (admittedly strong) opinions on the goals and objectives of folks who exercise regularly, allow me to offer a simple and compelling reason why you must exercise regularly. As background to what you are about to read, you might want to look back at the principles behind training.)

The answer

The answer is simple: If you don’t exercise regularly, you’ll lose important muscle mass and bone density.

Muscles, Athletes, MRI, Ageing, Muscle Mass, Bone Density

Which one do you want to be when you grow old?

You see, if you don’t exercise, your body, being the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, does the most logical thing and stops investing in expensive to build, and costly to maintain, muscle mass.

In turn, when muscle mass decreases, strain on bones also decreases: Basically, if you don’t move much, your bones don’t need to be strong. So once again your body does the evolutionary logical thing and divests itself of bone density, which is expensive to maintain from a biological standpoint.

That’s how the body works: If you don’t use it, you lose it.

And that’s the real answer. Anything else is confusing the main cause (muscle mass and bone density loss) with its consequences, or symptoms.

The consequences (or symptoms)

Yeah, sure, you may gain weight of the fatty kind if you don’t exercise. Exercise burns calories, so it helps keep the weight off in the long run, or maintain a healthy weight. If you keep eating like you did when you were 20.

But keep in mind that when you start exercising, you will gain some weight of the non-fatty kind, so at first your weight may go up, not down. Or stay the same if you never really let yourself go.

Also, the main reason you gain weight, which is the symptom, is that without enough muscle mass, your base metabolism is greatly reduced. So if you keep eating the same quantity, or, worse, you eat more as you age, you will put on the pounds. However, this is not what happens to everyone.

Another, less talked about consequence of “losing it,” is an increased risk of injury from not having sufficient muscle tone and bone density when attempting certain actions or movements. We are accustomed to think of this as the “natural” frailty that elderly folks have as they age, but it is already showing up at younger ages, especially for those who forget that they are no longer 20…

And there is nothing natural about becoming frail as we age. That frailty is the direct consequence of losing muscle mass and bone density. Of not using our bodies enough.

There is also mounting evidence that our internal organs, and our brains as well, don’t function optimally when our bodies are not moving enough. Though that is a little beyond the scope of this post, the principle of “use it (your body), or lose it (your mind)” also applies.

All good things must come to an end

Our bodies are marvelous biological machines. But they are not magical; they obey very specific rules that make sense from an evolutionary, biological standpoint. And they get older, of course.

Magical thinking about being able to be healthy in the long run without exercising regularly, or just by controlling what we eat, won’t make it so.

It is a fact that we all age and that some day we’ll die. It is a fact that many of us are getting heavier and rounder due to fatty deposits over time. And it is also a fact that many become frail as they age.

But it does not have to be so. Although there is no absolute guarantee of health into old age, because much can happen, the way to improve the odds is well known.

The key is to move more, everyday, so as to maintain the all-important muscle mass and bone density you’ll need to age gracefully into your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and well beyond if you keep at it.

And here’s a further thought in closing: Since you want to have all those years ahead of you, consider picking up a new sport now that you’ll be able to practice when you retire. After all, you’ll have a lot of time on your hand then; might as well fill it with something fun to do.

Thinking about getting fit in the New Year? Why wait? Start getting fit right now.

Holidays, Exercise, Habits, New Year, Resolutions

Looking forward to all the food and sugar you’ll eat during the holidays?

The holiday season is just around the corner. And then it will be a New Year.

So many of us take the New Year as a signal to start an exercise program it has become a cliché. A tired one at that.

Part of the reason we want to start an exercise program in the new year, of course, is the abusive regimen we put our bodies through during the festive season. Another part of it is the logical attractiveness of a new calendar, with all the associated renewal and new beginning.

But those are illusions, and contribute to the very high rate of failure of those very same resolutions.

Simply put, if you really mean it, there is no point in waiting for January 1st. Why wait? The best time to start a new set of good habits that will lead you to better fitness is today.

As an additional bonus for starting today, having the “excuse” of being on a new tract towards better fitness is an excellent way to limit the damage of over-indulging during the holidays. And it also an excellent conversation topic, and may spread much more joy around by being more reasonable (and limit the spread of mid sections in your entire family).

“But, wait, in order to start now, don’t I need to join a gym, or buy expensive equipment?” I imagine some of you asking.

No. Not really. Not at all, as I’m about to show.

(Though asking for a few useful pieces of equipment as Christmas gifts can also be a very good idea, by the way.)

Here’s the recipe I’ve come up with, based on all my reading and experience, to get you going immediately and have a much more healthy holiday experience and a head start on your fitness for years to come:

1) Start using your body more to move around

You don’t need any special equipment. Just look for opportunities to walk more, take stairs more, not sit as long as you normally do. Every time you move, you score a small victory: make it a game and keep score. As you graduate through the levels of moving around, you might want to reward yourself with a pedometer (to keep a more accurate count) or a FitBit, or just start using your smartphone for much better purposes than reading Facebook updates… After 3-4 weeks on this stage, with new habits in place, move on to the next phase.

2) Start re-building your muscle mass

Yeah, this is the not-as-much-fun part, I must admit, at least at first. But it is oh so important. What is often neglected when talking about reduced metabolism as we age is the fact that we lose muscle mass, and that it is muscle mass that burns the most calories. The best use you can make of a few minutes in the morning is to do some simple exercises like squats, push-ups, sit-ups, etc. Look into the 7-minute Workout and adopt it on a daily basis. Then reward yourself, perhaps with a set of shiny weights or kettle bells, or a very nice dinner out. After this becomes a habit, 3-4 weeks of focused effort, move on to the next phase.

3) Put a sport in your schedule

Play is the best way to spend energy without noticing. And it is fun. If you’ve ever played a sport competitively, or just for fun, when you were younger, pick it up again. If you never did, then become a “big kid” and pick one up. Not competition, just playing. You’ll soon come to realize that it is better to do something than to watch it on TV. Do it with your spouse, with your kids even; a family that plays together, spends quality time together. A brand new badminton racket, or new court shoes, make very nice rewards for being more active. Again, take a good 3-4 weeks to make this a new habit before moving on to the next one, and keep room in your schedule for this from now on.

4) Sign-up for a walking, running, or cycling event

By this point it will be spring time, or very close to it. There are many running shops and fundraising programs that offer training for various local events to be held during the summer; in those events you can walk or run, or bike through various distances. These are great ways to get with a group of people working towards a fitness goal, even as you all work together to help others. And you can do this at your own pace, quite often with coaches that are eager to help you at no charge. The event t-shirt and/or finisher medal make rewards enough for your achievements, though I know a lot of people who conclude such event with a bottle of bubbly… I don’t even need to tell you to do this again each year, or multiple time per year, because once you try it, you’ll adopt it.

You notice a pattern of “effort and reward” emerging? Nowhere am I suggesting you need to spend first, and then exercise: That’s often why people feel particularly bad about failing in their resolutions.

What I’m hinting at is that you can start doing the right thing, right now, with a future reward in mind. When you get to the reward, you can set the next goal. It comes from within yourself, not from feeling bad about having spent money.

Also, note how I’ve not told you to join a gym. You don’t need to. But it could come later, if you feel like it. However, getting fitter right now begins at home and in your daily activities. Again, with minimal expenditure.

One final note about the coming holidays

It is part of the recipe in general, but not a specific step in the program, or it would be “step 0”: Consult the list of NOT FOOD items and make a conscious effort to remove them from your habits.

Do this gradually, not all at once, but do it. Just removing liquid sugars (pops, fruit juices, etc.) makes a HUGE difference. With each step (1-4) outlined above, pick a NOT FOOD item you want to work on reducing and eventually eliminating from your life. Your body will thank you for it by getting fitter faster, and, incidentally, getting leaner in the process.

So, instead of indulging and feeling bad this holiday season, spread the cheers and the word about getting fit. Get a head start on the holidays by starting today.

There’s nothing stopping you from having the best holiday season ever.

Rewards, Habits, Effort, Exercise

A bit of celebrating, when it is as reward for your accomplishments, is always good for you.

Pictures from Pixabay.

First things first: put your muscles on

 

Dancing, Music, Muscles Mass, Aging

Put on some music, but put on some muscles, too.

What does a little old lady on Britain’s Got Talent, an article claiming that muscle mass is a better predictor of longevity than BMI, and No-brainer Fitness: E, have in common?

Other than being tidbits of “information” you can find on the Internet?

Well, the first may very well be an illustration of the second. Anecdotal, to be sure, but an illustration nevertheless. And the third is definitely derived from the principle of building muscle mass as a starting point to having fit and healthy bodies well into older age.

First, the little old lady.

Paddy is 80 years old. And she’s on the show with a much younger, much taller partner called Nico. They are doing a dance routine. At first, it’s tame and boring. And then, her partner starts twirling her about, lifting her and spinning her in the air. Acrobatic Rock ‘n Roll style. The audience holds its breath, commentators are speechless.

Why? Because everyone is afraid for this fragile little old lady. She might break a hip. She might lack strength and let go as she’s dangling precariously, and then crash and need an ambulance. You can see them thinking it. Heck, it’s almost impossible not to think it.

But she doesn’t. She holds on, and finishes the routine on her own high-heeled two legs. With a smile.

Why would we think this extraordinary?

Because we have been trained, perhaps brainwashed, into thinking that becoming old means becoming fragile. That frailty is the norm for older people.

But as MRI images of older triathletes reveal, in comparison to both younger and same age but sedentary folks, when you maintain your muscle mass and remain active, other than slowing down some and requiring more recovery time, we can remain lean, muscular, and prevent our bones from losing strength well into old age.

Second, what about that article about muscle mass?

Muscles, Athletes, MRI

Which one do you want to be when you grow old?

While most of the medical establishment (and people providing dietary advice) have been saying for some time that losing weight is good for your health in the long term, it seems in fact that having more muscle mass, even with a higher BMI, is a better predictor of outcomes.

Simply put: Don’t just try to lose weight; put on some muscles. It’s better for you.

I’m no expert, but I can think of many reasons why that would be logical, beyond the fact that diet alone never works:

  1. Muscle mass is what burns the most calories; so the more muscle mass you have, the higher your base metabolism, and therefore the less you tend to gain weight. Or the faster you burn through extra reserves. Remember that excess weight, especially abdominal fat deposits, is a major risk factor; but muscles burn calories, so you don’t need to starve yourself half to death to lose the weight.
  2. Muscles are what put strain on your bones, and therefore keep them from becoming weak (in reaction to the strain, bones become denser, and more sturdy). Stronger bones means less chances of fractures, which is an important contributor to loss of autonomy and health in older age.
  3. A stronger body in general is insurance against injuries caused by attempting to perform tasks that once were normal, but that become a challenge as we age. We’re not old in our heads, so when we think we can do something, but have not maintained our bodies, we run the risk of getting hurt.

The main issue, as I see it, is that as we age (starting around our mid-twenties), our metabolism and hormonal equilibrium shift, and it takes some activity to maintain muscle mass. It is not automatic that we gain weight, but if we lose muscle mass because we don’t use it enough, then we start to burn less, and thus put on the weight.

A good remedy to that is to maintain muscle mass. Or re-build it.

This is where No-brainer Fitness: E comes in, as a third part to the initial comparison.

The first thing to focus on when beginning a new regimen of activity is re-building muscle mass. And that is precisely what occupies a great deal of the time of No-brainer Fitness: E.

The best way to protect your body against excess weight and injuries is to have a stronger body.

And now, it seems, research is showing that long-term health is better if you have greater muscle mass.

So put first things first, and re-build (or maintain) that muscle mass. (Which is not the same as saying that you should not do any cardio, or eat badly. It’s just a place to start…)

References:

Muscle mass index as a predictor of longevity in Older adults, The American Journal of Medicine (article in press), 2014

The article from which the MRI images are claimed to originate can be found here.

Watch Paddy and Nico here. (Hopefully that link is still up…)