Let’s Be Real: What is the Maximum Age to Start a New Fitness Program?

Let’s go through the “knowns” about aging. These are things that we all “feel” and research has substantially proven:

What if I told you that, frankly, it is dangerous not to be active?  And, especially so as we age beyond 50?  As we age we lose the “springiness” of youth, and need to take better care of our bodies. In fact, Miriam Nelson, professor of nutrition at Tufts University, says, “It’s way more dangerous to not be active as an older adult.”

Therefore, it’s important to build muscle and have a healthy heart to deal with everything life throws at us. And we all know life throws a lot our way…

We know the human body continually creates new cells until we die. And, we know those who engage in a fitness program including strength training are less likely to suffer from heart disease (genetics aside), survive a fall, and are happier and more engaged in society. Most of the science linking activity to brain health focuses on endurance exercise. Physiologically, aerobic exercise causes a spike in blood movement which some believe is necessary to create new brain cells.

Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a professor of physical therapy and director of the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, led a team of scientists who studied the effect of strength training on the brain. She was already aware of the benefits of running, walking, and aerobic activity on the brain. Her interest was keenly on the effects of strength training on the brain. Some of Liu-Ambrose’s early findings will help you remember to take your morning or after breakfast walk.

For the new study, published October 2015 in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the scientists zeroed in on 54 of the women whose scans showed existing white matter lesions. Scientists have seen that by late middle age, most of us have begun developing age-related holes or lesions in our brains’ white matter, which is the material that connects and passes messages between different brain regions.

White matter can be likened to the “subway of the brain,” linking the parts of the brain to each other. Regions of the brain communicate in order to carry out behavior involved in everyday life. This isn’t just a human rule, it applies to animals, too. Decline in white matter used to be associated only with speed of thinking. Now we know more. Deficits can range from language ability to delayed memory, and can be associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease among others.

In a related piece by Gretchen Reynolds in The New York Times, she reports that neurological studies have found that older people with many lesions tend to have worse cognitive abilities than those whose white matter is relatively intact.

In this study, the scientists tested the women’s gait speed and stability, then randomly assigned them to one of three groups. Some began a supervised, once-weekly program of light upper- and lower-body weight training. A second group undertook the same weight-training routine, but twice per week. And the third group, acting as a control, started a twice-weekly regimen of stretching and balance training.

All of the women continued their assigned exercise routines for a year.  At the end of that time, their brains were scanned again and their walking ability re-assessed.

The results were alternately sobering and stirring. The women in the control group, who had concentrated on balance and flexibility, showed worrying progression in the number and size of the lesions in their white matter and in the slowing of their gaits.

So did the women who had weight trained once per week.

But those who had lifted weights twice per week displayed significantly less shrinkage and tattering of their white matter than the other women. They also walked more quickly and smoothly than the women in the other two groups.  Their lesions had grown and multiplied somewhat, but not nearly as much.

These findings suggest that weight training can beneficially change the structure of the brain, but that “a minimum threshold of exercise needs to be achieved,” Dr. Liu-Ambrose said.

Visiting the gym once per week is probably insufficient. Twice a week, at least, will suffice.

Weight training strengthens and builds muscles, piquing the interest of Ms. Liu-Ambrose.  In results from her lab, older women who lifted weights performed significantly better on various tests of cognitive functioning than women who completed toning classes.

Since February, Frank (67 years old) has lost 30 pounds and is off of his blood pressure medication. No more pills!

Liu-Ambrose admits she’s just scratching the surface.

Our muscles tend to shrink with age, affecting how we move. Smaller muscle mass generally results in slower, unsteady walking. This also applies to our brain. As we age, it shrinks and affects how we think…and move. The brain doesn’t really like a slouched or uneven gait. The brain wants our bodies to move in a neutral spine, head evenly above our neck.

More surprising, changes in gait and agility with aging may indicate and even contribute to a decline in brain health, including in our white matter, scientists think. Our gait adjusts for the better and for the worse. The more we practice a healthy and strong gait, the more our brain will maintain that posture and stay healthy.

Clip from aging group workout

Starting an exercise program — even now — will help your body keep that muscle mass so you can keep up with your grandkids and friends for their day at the park, or walk through the Smithsonian.

The most astounding finding to me continues to be that our bodies generate new cells throughout our lives. There is no age limit to getting healthy! But once a week training is just not enough. So, get up off that chair and lift some weights — even if they are bottles of water in your pantry or heavy books from your bookshelf!

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