By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: There’s a good news flip side to the adage “use it or lose it.” If you never used it, you can still gain it, even in your sixties (and maybe later on too). It’s true for VO2max, it’s true for freedom of movement and it’s true for muscle too. You may not win an Olympic gold by adopting this mindset. But it could result in something far more precious, a longer, healthier, more fulfilled and pain free life.
Prevailing wisdom is that as you get older, every candle you add to your cake will doom you to get worse and weaker.
Prevailing wisdom is wrong.
The reason is, in part, due to there being are lies, damn lies and statistics.
There is, in truth, nothing wrong with statistics. To the contrary, in the right hands they are a real force for good.
But in the wrong hands they can be misinterpreted and used to draw conclusions that are wrong and potentially dangerous.
It doesn’t take a degree to understand why in the case of studies of the effects of aging.
Humans are complex, especially because of our behavior. As we grow its not just our bodies that change but we act differently too. The statistics you see about aging such as the fact you “lose 10 percent of your VO2max” or “5 percent of your muscle mass” every decade don’t tell lies. They really did happen.
The question is why they happened. Going back to the source studies that produced these numbers the reason is clear. It’s mostly because people stop training hard. The studies take athletes at a certain age who have already been in training, perhaps since childhood. Twenty or thirty years later some are less fit.
Why? Because they eased up. Some because they lost motivation, others because wear and tear injuries made training more difficult. So they got “worse” as they got older but it was not the passing of years that caused this it was a change in their behavior. Maybe directly because the simply lost motivation. Or maybe indirectly because they trained through injury and didn’t take pay enough attention to the key fitness pillars: mobility and stability.
“Use it or lose it” is one of the basic rules of fitness. The studies on physical decline with age mainly merely confirm that adage.
Another basic rule of statistics is that they must be appropriate to the group they apply to. Quoting statistics taken from studies of lifelong and professional athletes and applying them to the huge majority who have not exercised seriously since they were a child is like taking the average income of NFL quarterbacks and saying we could all afford to be driving Ferraris.
This does not mean there is no effect of age on performance. There is. But crucially it only really impacts your peak potential. If, at 20, you had the genes to have a VO2max of 100 then at the age of 60 you will never reach 100. But if you have spent 40 years sitting on the couch and your VO2max is under 30 then you will, even at 60, be able to improve it year on year. It may not get to 100. But even 40 is a pretty big jump, one that will make you feel a lot better and may well help you live longer. Combine this with quality time working on mobility, stability and strength and the quality of every additional year could be greater too.
Progress is progress and can, for most, something that can be achieved regardless of age.
Why mention this now? Because for years I avoided doing upper body strength workouts, trying to improve my watts per kilogram. I’ve realized my mistake and now prioritize being healthy above Strava times.
I’ve recommended AthleanX before. It’s a great source of free motivation and up front science based advice on how to train with a view to increasing muscle. Out of interest I tried their “Bigger arms in 22 days” program.
And it worked. I started with 12” upper arm. After the program it was 13”. A full inch most of which was the muscle that I was supposed, as a 62 year old, to be an impossible feat.
It wasn’t just muscle, I got stronger. The program was 3 weeks with each week tougher than the previous one. I was genuinely surprised by how much progress I could make in terms of weight, sets and reps. The first week was the hardest. Once I had got used to actually making my arms do real work again adding a few pounds was relatively easy.
I’m nothing special. If it worked for me it would work for the majority of those who have not lifted a heavy weight with intent for decades, perhaps ever.
It’s not age that causes most decline its behavior. It’s ignoring the niggles that turn into major issues and spending no quality time helping our bodies remain strong and fit. In the case of cyclists it’s also the misguided advice that “strength training” will make you “worse” at riding a bike (It won’t it will most likely make you better if done intelligently.)
Getting stronger, getting healthier, feeling better, at any age, is easy. It takes no equipment, it can be done just by spending a few minutes every day.
It just requires three things
- A positive mindset, belief that you can get better
- A realistic goal. At 60 you will not win an Olympic gold medal. But if at 60 you can be stronger and fitter than you were at 59. Or even 50. Or even 40. Or even 30.
- Commitment. Regular consistent, intelligent, focused training will yield improvement.
I’ve always believed this and it’s been a driving force since my doctor told me to get fit or risk serious illness nearly 20 years ago now.
I’ve given a nod to AthleanX once here and will do so again. The video below drums home the above, I find it inspiring and hope others do too.
All training, indeed all self improvement, is the same in terms of the fundamentals and approach. There are differences in terms of detail but they are detail. What is constant and preeminent though is mindset.
With the right mindset a 60 year old who has never taken exercise seriously can get better.
With the wrong mindset a 20 year old who has the potential to be a world champion will get worse.
If you set yourself no more ambitious a goal than being just 1 percent better next year than this then, even if you only make it more often than not, the result in terms of quality of life over the next decades could be immense.
So don’t believe the statistics, aim to be an outlier, believe, train intelligently with purpose and commitment and you’ll feel better for it.
(Email me on [email protected] if you want more info on this or any topic I have raised. It may be a while but I will get back to you.)
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.