How an Athlete Ages
This month, since I’m turning 50, I’m trying to prove that birthdays—even milestone ones like this one—are the most inconsequential change of all. It’s what’s in our heads rather than in our bodies that makes the real difference. But that’s not to say our bodies don’t undergo some pretty significant changes as we approach the Metamucil Years. In fact, here’s what happens to three of the biggest components of athletic performance:
According to research conducted at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (how did I not apply there?), the average guy’s ability to bench-press an 80-pound barbell drops from 23 reps at age 18-25 to 6 reps at age 65-plus. That means the average young man is nearly three times as strong as the typical gray-hair. Indeed, strength declines more precipitously with age than any other fitness component.
Generally, the lower your heart rate during exercise, the stronger your ticker and the fitter you are. In another UNLV experiment, men between the ages of 18 and 25 stepped on and off a foot-high bench for 3 consecutive minutes. Their average heart rate was 102 beats per minute. But when the same test was given to guys age 46 to 55, their average pulse was 113 bpm. The simple act of getting older had eroded about 10 percent of their fitness.
Adults are at their Gumby peaks between ages 18 and 25. At that time, if you sit on the floor with legs extended and reach forward, you’ll generally be able to stretch 16 inches, or about an inch past your toes. But if a 65-year-old guy does the same thing, he’ll only get about 10 inches out (and you’ll probably have to help him up). Nearly half of his flexibility will be gone.
Your Action Plan
Getting depressed? Fighting the urge to Google the Jazzy Power Chair? Don’t sweat it. Although all these changes are happening inside you right now, you can slow, stop or even reverse their progression. That’s something science didn’t fully understand or appreciate even 20 years ago, when it was thought that much of this was irreconcilable. Now we know that with proper training and smart living, anyone can reclaim a good chunk of that 18 to 25 prime time.
For real-life proof of this, consider a study currently being conducted by Athletes’ Performance in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Since January, researchers there have been working with members of the Pensacola Fire Department in an attempt to determine the best way to train “occupational athletes,” or people who must be physically fit to do their jobs. Although the study still has a few months to run, researcher and kinesiologist David Frost says he’s already convinced that the physical effects of aging are surmountable obstacles.
“We’re dealing with firefighters from age 20 to 57,” he explains. “Initially, some of the older guys were hesitant about getting involved and training hard for 12 weeks. They didn’t think they were as strong, as flexible or as cardiovascularly fit as the younger, more ripped guys. And they were afraid of getting injured. But now they can do everything the younger guys can. It was just their confidence that was holding them back. They didn’t even require more rest.”
Frost hopes that recreational athletes will eventually shift from narrow, sports-specific training to a much broader style of conditioning, like the type of movement workouts Athletes’ Performance advocates. Instead of limiting your training to your preferred sport, be it running, strength training, softball or triathlons, he says the key to lifelong fitness is broadening your mindset. “Instead of training for a sport, train for life,” he says. “Instead of going to the gym to get a great workout, work out so you can enjoy a great life.”
For the specifics of how to do this, watch for my next blog, “The Age-Defying Workout.” Among others, I’ll be talking to strength-and-conditioning coach, Ken Croner, of Athletes’ Performance, who worked with ageless Packer and Jet vet, Brett Favre.