Ian Spiby spent most of his career teaching at university level and having taken early retirement, invested as an active partner and shareholder in Wellbeing Fitness. We specialise in training people “from 40 to 65+”. Twelve years later at the age of 75 he has gained a considerable body of knowledge about training the older body.
Last time I confronted the notion that as we get older, we automatically get weaker and frailer. But the exercises we need to do as we get older are different in emphasis from the ones we do in earlier life.
Let’s take them in order:
Let’s face the unpleasant facts, that as we get older, unless we do something about it, our muscles gradually atrophy. We get weaker. Simple things we used to be able to do without thinking, such as climbing the stairs, we find difficult or even impossible. The answer is obviously exercise, but it seems to me that too much emphasis is placed on aerobic exercise. This is encouraged by doctors and even government health officials, who, desperate to halt the obesity epidemic are trying to encourage people to take some exercise – ANY exercise! “Do half an hour’s gentle walking a day to slightly raise the heart-rate” – that sort of thing. Now I’m not rubbishing their advice. Doing something like that is better than nothing – but that’s literally it – it’s better than NOTHING. All the time I see people wearing pedometers proudly announcing they’ve done 6000 steps already that day – when all they’ve been doing is shuffling round the house!
The key to reversing the decline in muscle power is to do weight-bearing exercises. And herein lies another problem. It seems to me that the whole emphasis on weight-training these days is to lift heavier and heavier weights. If you can lift 20kg dumbbells, that’s twice as good as lifting 10kg ones. In addition, particularly with men, they concentrate very much on upper-body strength to develop chest and arms. And of course this is fuelled by the young obsession with perfect-looking bodies so that they can post pictures of themselves on Instagram.
With older people, the accent should be less about developing a beautiful body. After all, we all know that at 60 or 70, our bodies don’t look and can never look like they did when we were 20. At the same time, who wouldn’t like to be confident about the way they look and know that their muscles are toned and active. No – in older age, resistance exercises should be more about developing all-over strength so that the body can function effectively in everyday situations – in other words, FUNCTIONAL FITNESS.
So, we should develop the muscles required to be able to climb the stairs with ease, develop the core muscles needed to put our socks on standing up without losing balance and breaking our hips. Develop the muscles that enable us to sit down on the floor and get up again without floundering about like a landed fish. Improve the strength to be able to pick heavy objects up, to crouch down and stand up, to reach up to a high cupboard, to retrieve something from behind the sideboard.
All these are practical issues where just working with heavy weights is not going to help particularly.
Once again though, there are hidden dangers in this approach. It is all too easy for trainers to take an “ah bless” approach and simply do all-too-easy exercises sitting in a chair, lifting a couple of cans of baked beans.
The muscles of an older body DO respond to a challenge and they DO develop far more than you would ever think possible. With the right mind-set, from both client and personal trainer, this is definitely achievable. I have proved it to myself personally and reading accounts of other like-minded people shows that I am not alone.
Next time, I am going to look at what I regard as THE most important aspect of fitness for older people: developing flexibility and balance.