Age is just a number, they say. I thought about this especially when I saw the inspirational video of record-setting runner Julia Hawkins, age 103. She took up running at the age of 100! Let that be me in another 40 years!
Aging is something that most of us would like to deny. But really, it’s not growing old that kills us. Instead, it’s usually one of many “lifestyle” diseases such as certain types of cancers, Type II diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately, most of the research dollars go to finding ways to fix these diseases (with pharmaceuticals and increasingly, unregulated nutraceuticals) instead of preventing them from occurring in the first place. So what happens to our bodies as we age, and what can we do to turn back the clock?
Mitochondria – our microscopic power stations
Every cell in the body (except for red blood cells) contains many mitochondria – our energy factories. These mitochondria use oxygen to convert glucose (blood sugar) into energy, thus forming the basis of metabolism.
Over a lifetime, we typically lose 40 to 50% of our mitochondrial mass. They become less able to self-repair and generate new mitochondria. The result is an overall loss of power – like a big Cadillac powered by a Vespa scooter engine. As our body’s cells degenerate, so do we.
The good news is that cellular regeneration and rebirth is spurred by physical activity. We also know that exercise builds muscle, and more muscle cells equals more mitochondria. Endurance training can boost mitochondria mass by 60 to 70 percent, reversing the typical aging process and creating a relative surplus of mitochondria compared to sedentary people.
This helps explain why a growing number of runners are living full and active lifestyles well into their 90’s and beyond. More and more women especially are finding increased speed and strength as they age. I see this often in my own triathlon competitions – women in their 60’s, 70’s, and even 80’s posting amazingly fast race times.
Turning back the clock
There are several common factors amongst the majority of the amazing older athletes we see. Here are three of them that you too can incorporate into your life:
Consistent exercise. Find activities that you enjoy or feel satisfaction from when you’ve completed them. If an uncomfortable “niggle” crops up, look for alternatives that keep you moving. For example, if you run/jog and some knee or foot pain starts to bother you, switch to pool running or current pool walking for a while until you feel better. Find ways to incorporate movement into every single day through walking or cycling instead of driving, playing with pets and children, or even participating in a fun game-sport like pickle ball.
Extend recovery time. Research suggests that as we age, more time is needed for the body to return to homeostasis (recovery). While older athletes can still engage in relatively intense training sessions, it takes longer for recovery. Be sure to keep that in mind when planning your exercise, to ensure you’re allowing enough time for your body to regenerate.
Use your imagination. Picture yourself 20 years from now…what will you be doing, and how will you be using the regenerative power of exercise to keep your body running like a Cadillac instead of a Vespa? See yourself being consistent for many years to come, and establish positive patterns now that will support an active lifestyle far into your future.