You have a wonderful family, perhaps you’re an empty nester, you like your job even though it involves some overtime, you and your spouse enjoy your social life, you ride with the club most weekends and ride in the evening during daylight savings time. You aren’t quite as fit as you used to be, but you’re still happy with how you ride. You’re not chronologically old (55) and you sure don’t feel old.
“He not busy being born is busy dying.” — Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is about … it’s Dylan so there are many possible interpretations.
It also describes your body. All normal cells have a limited life span. All muscle cells in your leg die and are replaced over the course of four months! Entirely different muscle cells are turning the cranks than did in June! Osteoclasts are breaking down and dissolving your bones. At the same time osteoblasts are forming new bone. This process is called remodeling and most of your skeleton is replaced about every ten years. Your blood cells are replaced every three months and your platelets every 10 days.
Your heart is a muscle and as it atrophies your cardiac output decreases by about 30 percent between the ages of 20 and 80. Cardiac output is a function of heart rate and stroke volume, how much blood your heart pumps per beat.
The loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia) is a natural part of aging. After age 30, you begin to lose about three to five percent per decade. Most men will lose about 30 percent of their muscle mass during their lifetimes.
Mitochondria are tiny engines (organelles) inside your cells. Capillaries deliver oxygen, fat and glucose to your cells and remove the waste products. Using the oxygen delivered by your capillaries, the mitochondria burn fat and glucose. Specific enzymes are necessary to metabolize fat and different enzymes to metabolize glucose. As you age your cells have fewer enzymes of both types and don’t process oxygen as well. At the same time the number of capillaries decreases.
Bone mass peaks in your early 20s and from then on with normal living the osteoclasts are tearing down more bone than the osteoblasts are rebuilding, which leads to osteoporosis, weak bones susceptible to fracture when you fall off the bike. About half the women over 50 and a quarter of the men over 50 will have osteoporosis related fractures. Fractures of the hip, spine and wrist are the most common but any bone can fracture.
Your body has been decaying for 20 or 30 years and you didn’t even feel it!
This is all the result of “living normally.” The normal state of your body is to wear out! You ride your bike so you’re not wearing out quite as fast but you’re still wearing out, even in your 50s.
The rate at which your body decays is the geriatric curve, which I wrote about here. Squaring the Geriatric Curve Staying Healthy and Vigorous into Old Age. In the column I wrote, “Most people’s health and fitness start to irrevocably decline about age 50, and as they get older their health and fitness decline more rapidly. This is called the geriatric curve.” Note that it’s not a linear decline but the older someone gets the faster the decline. Squaring the geriatric curve is changing the downward sloping rate of aging to an almost flat a rate, i.e., slowing down aging as much as possible.
I’m off my bike and recovering from foot surgery. I’m using the time to catch up on professional literature. The bad news is that the decline starts in your 20s and 30s. The good news is that it’s not irrevocable!
Most Americans don’t live normally. They’re inactive with poor diets and are overweight (although there are exceptions). Their life styles are worse and they age abnormally. Their geriatric curves are steeper than normal.
I write frequently about the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) exercise recommendations. By following the minimum recommendations as well as other lifestyle changes, a person can age normally, i.e., decay at the natural rate — a normal geriatric curve.
With all the advances in medicine average lifespans are increasing. But bodies continue to decay and over time the quality of life suffers. Even aging normally is a bad trip!
What to do?
You’re familiar with the maxim “use it or lose it” about fitness. Different types of cells are constantly decaying at different rates in different parts of your body. Different kinds of exercise stimulate the different types of cells to regenerate. If you don’t exercise enough and in the right ways cells decay faster than they rebuild.
Commit to exercising (almost) every day. Skipping Thanksgiving Day is okay but don’t take all four days off. Consistently exercising every week is hard both physically and mentally. So taking off the occasional day or two and taking up to four non-consecutive weeks off are good ideas. You’ll lose a little fitness and then be refreshed and motivated to exercise consistently and get more benefits out of the following weeks.
Commit to exercising at least enough in three areas to meet the ACSM’s minimum recommendations:
1. Commit to meeting the ACSM’s minimum aerobic recommendation of a total of at least 2:30 hours of brisk aerobic exercise a week and up to 5:00 hours are better. Or do 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise a week or a combination of brisk and vigorous a week.
Aerobic exercise is important to slow the atrophy of your heart, the loss of capillaries and the capacity of your mitochondria to produce energy. With enough exercise you can even reverse these losses.
Brisk aerobic means hard enough that you are breathing deeply but still can talk in full sentences. Activities like walking the dog while he does his business aren’t aerobic because you aren’t exercising continuously at a good intensity. But letting the dog off leash and walking briskly or jogging to keep up is great. Vigorous means hard enough that you can only say a few words but aren’t gasping for air. Because vigorous is so hard you’ll mix vigorous into your brisk exercise. One minute of vigorous exercise equals two minutes of brisk aerobic exercise.
Four days totaling 2:30 should be your baseline and more whenever you can. If you haven’t been doing this much aerobic exercise then build up slowly. If you’re already doing the upper amounts or more — congratulations!
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process has a chapter on aerobic exercise. It includes three sample weeks. The first example meets the minimum ACSM recommendation followed by two progressively more challenging weeks. It also includes two nine-week sample plans to ramp up your long rides and a sample plan of how to vary your aerobic exercise by season.
Anti-Aging has a separate chapter on vigorous cardio. You don’t have to do intensity to improve your aerobic fitness. However the right amount at the right intensity is a good complement to your brisk aerobic exercise.
2. Commit to meeting the ACSM’s minimum recommendation of doing a strength program exercising all the major muscle groups two days a week. For general fitness you can use relatively light resistance and do 15 or more repetitions to exhaustion. To build strength use more resistance and do 8 to 12 reps to exhaustion. By exercising a muscle to exhaustion, you can reverse muscle loss. If you haven’t been doing resistance exercise ease into it gradually. If you’re already doing this much already — congratulations. Continuing the same program will maintain your strength. Consider increasing either the resistance or the reps to improve your strength.
Anti-Aging has a chapter on strength training including upper body, core and lower body exercises with descriptions and photos. The exercises are illustrated primarily using body weight and simple things you have around the house. You don’t have to go to a gym and pump iron.
3. Commit to meeting the ACSM’s minimum recommendation for weight bearing exercise of 30 to 60 minutes a day three to five days a week. Unfortunately cycling isn’t weight bearing. Tests show that even at a full sprint the load on your bones isn’t as much as walking. Walking with a pack, jogging, and going up and down stairs are weight bearing as are court games like pickle ball and also dancing. Higher resistance lower rep strength exercises also help reduce bone loss. Anti-Aging has a chapter on weight bearing exercise.
With the right kinds and amounts of aerobic exercise you can reverse some of your cardio losses and with the right strength program you can reverse some of your strength losses. However you can’t reverse bone loss but you can curb it with weight bearing exercises.
You’re very busy so if you can at least meet the minimum in each of these areas (almost) every week you’ll have a normal geriatric curve, i.e., age physiologically at a normal rate. When you retire you’ll be ready to do even more to slow and maybe reverse your body’s decay. However, if you aren’t doing the minimum weekly in each of the three areas then reallocate your exercise time so you’re doing all three.
My four-article Cycling Past 50 bundle covers what you need to do in your 50 and beyond to increase your longevity, build your fitness and improve your quality of life. The articles are relevant whether you’re in your first season or have thousands of miles in your legs.
Healthy Cycling Past 50 — What happens physiologically as we age and how to use cycling and other activities into our daily lives to remain healthy and active for many years.
Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 — What to do in the off-season to be ready for the year ahead, taking into account the physiological changes of aging.
Healthy Nutrition Past 50 — What to eat to eat and drink to support a healthy lifestyle and continued performance.
Performance Cycling Past 50 – how to train to achieve specific goals given the physiological changes of aging.
The 96-page bundle of four Cycling Past 50 articles is $15.96, a savings of $4.00 over the cost of purchasing them separately.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.