Age-related physical decline will happen to us all, that’s just a fact of physiology I’m afraid. But, can you slow down the physical and cognitive decline by changing your lifestyle? The answer ton that is a big fat juicy YES! Basically, a big reason why so many people gain weight and experience an increase in health complications from the age of 40 onwards, isn’t so much that getting old makes them sick, but that they become less active, experience more life stress and don’t pay attention to their diet. In January this year, I turned 49 – this isn’t a boast but… I’m currently the fittest, strongest and leanest I have been my entire adult life. So, what is the secret to anti-ageing?
Make A Choice
Yes, lifestyle can be complicated and lots of factors will dictate how much control you really have over your circumstances. But ultimately it does all come down to choice. You can choose to make changes to your life, or you can choose to let circumstances keep getting the better of you.
Yes, that’s easier said than done and, yes, it’s easier for some personality types than it is others. If you are predisposed to anxious over thinking, depressive moods, self-defeating monologues, negative self-talk, etc. it’ll be much harder to just say “f***it I’m gonna lift some weights!”
The more pessimistic your general outlook is the harder it will be to unpack all that, to put the effort in to improving yourself. But let me tell you, there are plenty of people your age who have busy work lives, children, dependant family members, stress, fears, money worries and so on. But they still manage to prioritise their health.
Sometimes, all it takes is sitting down with your spouse or partner and explaining your concerns, what is it you want to achieve and why that is important to you. If your partner won’t support, you it might be that they are anxious you’ll leave them behind. Reassure them that’s not the case or bring them along for the ride. Couples who train together stay together (so they say on social media).
But ultimately, lifestyle change begins with a change of attitude. Set the intention to raise your standards, then formulate a plan to do just that.
When we talk about anti-ageing, it’s not (as some unethical business models might have you believe) not about cosmetic interventions, vitamin injections, herbal supplements or detox products. It’s not about restrictive diets, aligning your kundalini or cleansing your bowels with coffee. It’s the simple act of ensuring the best quality of life through simple lifestyle intervention.
One factor that affects ageing populations is reduced activity. As we get older, we become more sedentary. We stop playing sport, doing exercise, running up the stairs, lugging furniture around and, because behaviours and attitudes inform the decisions we make, we eat an increasingly unbalanced diet.
Many elderly people massively under eat, something referred to in some literature as ‘anorexia of ageing’ (5), whereby lack of activity and under consumption of calories results in declines in body mass index. That might not sound like a bad thing but think about it. Your 80-year-old gran who can’t get out of the armchair without assistance and just sits there all-day watching television and occasionally sipping a milky tea and dipping a rich tea biscuit, isn’t exactly living the lifestyle of a fit and active person are they?
This will lead to reductions in lean body mass, including muscle and bone density and increase the onset of conditions like sarcopenia and osteoporosis. Not to mention, in many cases, malnutrition!
Yeah, I’m getting ahead of myself here, this is about being fit at middle age, not as an octogenarian, but time flies. If you don’t do something to slow the decline now, before you know it, you’ll be just like your gran!
Personally, I intend to be as fit and strong as I can be in order to be as active as I want to be, for as long as I can manage. I ain’t letting a mere number prevent me from achieving that. Imagine being invited to take part in a cross-country bike tour, or a charity football match but you respond, “oh sorry, I’m over 40, my training career is over now!”
So, basically, anti-ageing is doing what you need to do to promote a suitable quality of life. A quality of life that we can measure in terms of physical pain, mobility, strength, balance, vibrancy (which is simply a sense of wellbeing). Let’s break that down a bit.
I’ve already mentioned how dietary insufficiency is problematic, for a number of reasons. Based on meta-analysis the mean average energy intake for males between 19-50 is 2,550kcals per day and 1,940kcals for females. This is a mean based on sample sizes – this isn’t a prescription because your energy expenditure could be vastly different depending on your body mass index and your activity.
By 75 those numbers have dropped to 2,100kcals for males and 1,810 for females. Which is interesting because that might indicate that males either lose dramatically more lean mass or simply become more inactive than their female counterparts. This is important because overweight is a condition that affects a lot of ageing individuals too, and we’ve all heard about the dreaded middle-aged spread – I HATE that! This indicates that being middle aged is the cause of increased fatness. It’s not, it’s changes in lifestyle.
But over ageing populations with overweight or obesity face increased heath risks including higher risk of heart disease, diabetes but also sarcopenia (due to low activity). Intentional weight loss can vastly improve these health markers. So yes, diet matters… A LOT!
It has been suggested that a Mediterranean style diet is best for ageing populations. It’s high in nutrient dense foods, whole grains, fatty acids, vegetables, lean protein, etc. According to Moore et.al (4) common nutrient deficiencies in the ageing are vitamin D, omega 3 polyunsaturated fats, iron, polyphenols and B vitamins. These deficiencies can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and depression.
Cognitive function relies heavily on micronutrients.
Bone density and muscle mass are things that you want to maintain if you want to have a good quality of life. Plenty of recent research has shown that low protein intakes are at-least partly responsible here. The government minimum of 0.8g of protein per KG of bodyweight isn’t enough to maintain nitrogen balance in even the most scarcely active mature individual.
According to current evidence intakes of upwards of 1g per KG are preferable (5,6). In-fact sedentary individuals should aim for at-least 1g/KG, moderately active individuals 1.3g/KG and highly active individuals 1.6g/KG. It’s advised as a caution that chronic intakes above 2g/KG (especially if accompanied by low calcium intake) may have some side-effects, but the upper limit is 3.5g/KG. I’d suggest that if you are used to a high protein intake, stick with that. Just be mindful of the quality of your protein sources, but if you're not up it to the minimum of at-least 1g/kg for starters.
Let’s break this down and make it more practical for you. If you are overweight, eat in a deficit to lose weight, around 10% of body mass is usually enough to dramatically improve health markers. If you are underweight you need to eat in a caloric surplus and, ideally, start doing resistance training to bulk up.
- Don’t do this without professional guidance, diets are hard enough as they are –
Eat a balanced diet, along the lines of the typical Mediterranean diet – whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, veg, fish, nuts, etc. But make it calorically appropriate to your needs.
Eat more protein. I advise everyone to eat a decent serving of quality protein with each meal at the very least.
An example of what a day’s intake might look like (and this isn’t prescriptive) might look something like this:
If you are very active, or have a higher protein intake you may want to add in a protein shake per day.
Any exercise or activity is better than none, so do more of what you enjoy the most. But, if you want to experience less pain, better mobility and more less decline in physical strength you need to include some resistance training.
According to Wescott (1) we experience, on average, 3-8% muscle loss per decade. This results in a reduction in resting metabolic rate, which is part of the reason why the middle-aged spread happens – less lean mass + less activity = lower metabolism. Yes, it’s that simple!
In their ten-week intervention resistance training resulted in increases in lean weight by 1.4KG, but a 1.8 KG reduction in fat mass (that is a significant amount of body recomposition in just ten weeks), increases in resting metabolic rate by 7% (because of the change in body composition). The benefits of this style of training included improved physical performance, motor control, walking speed, physical independence, better cognition, and self-esteem. There was even some evidence that resistance training could reduce the risk of diabetes.
Systematic reviews (2,3) have shown that resistance training improved strength, power and functional capacity in ageing populations. 1-6 sessions per week employing 1-3 sets of exercises in the range of 6-15 reps was all it took – more on that in a bit.
The reason resistance training is so effective is because it creates mechanical tension that forces musculoskeletal adaptations as your body learns to tolerate these force loads.
As discussed at the start, low bone mineral density and muscle loss will eventually result in physical weakness, poor balance and higher pain experiences. These are all predictors of early mortality. If you fall and can’t get up again, and there’s no one there to help, you’ll die!
Okay, let’s look at this more practically.
Walking is great, do more of that if you can. Cardiovascular exercise is great for your health, do some of that if you can. But if you want a strong and functional body you need to be doing resistance training. At the very least do 2 sessions per week, they don’t have to be long. If you are relatively untrained just start by doing the following:
3 sets of 6-15 reps. If you’re lifting heavier weights go for the lower rep ranges, if you’re only doing bodyweight, you could take each set close to failure which would likely be 25 reps or more, depending on your fitness levels (maybe not on the pullups though).
If you are more advanced or want to build muscle/strength you need to be doing more volume. 3-6 sessions per week with a combination of maximal strength (3-6 rep ranges) and moderate weight and rep range work for extra volume (typically 8-15 reps). Basically, you want to be hitting each muscle group at least twice per week and at around 50 reps per muscle group or more per workout.
Couple this with a calorie appropriate diet that is high in protein and includes a variety of vegetables and some essential fatty acids, especially from fish or seafood and you’ll be in a pretty good place.
If you want to learn more about basic exercise programming read this old blog here: HERE
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