Embracing Aging

If we are fortunate enough to continue living towards or beyond the current average life-expectancy of 78.6 years (76.1 for men and 81.1 for women), we should expect to adjust our exercise and fitness pursuits along the way through the lens of continual transformation rather than inability.  Throughout the course of our lifetime, changes in our cardiorespiratory system and musculoskeletal system will impact how we manage our physical well-being; being aware of and leaning into the modifications can be another opportunity to celebrate life.

Research suggests the cardiorespiratory fitness declines throughout the lifetime, with a 3% to 6% reduction per decade in our 20’s and 30’s to a greater than 20% reduction in the 70’s and beyond. The good news is that throughout the lifespan, individuals who maintain physical activity are more fit regardless of the age-related declines in cardiorespiratory function. The current baseline recommendations for cardiorespiratory activity are 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity at least five days per week. Participating in activities with reduced ground impact—brisk walking or low impact cardio equipment such as a stationary bike—can provide ample opportunity to meet this requirement. For moderate intensity you should be able to speak or sing an entire sentence. Perceiving our exertion through the talk test, exemplifies the practice of paying attention to our body’s responses to exercise that can inform our exercise behaviors day to day and decade to decade. If we get used to partnering with our body and observing how it is responding, we can apply that to the opportunity that is aging and adjust accordingly.  

The muscular-skeletal system similarly undergoes changes throughout life resulting in reductions in the number of neuromuscular motor units (a neuron and all the fibers it innervates) that are responsible for strength and some degradation of the joint structures. Research supports that up to age 50, the number of motor units is somewhat stable, but on average 50% of the muscle fibers present at age 50 are lost by the age of 80. Similarly, 24% of all adults have doctor-diagnosed arthritis, with muscular-skeletal joint pain being one of the leading causes of age-related disability. The recommendations for muscular strength and endurance training throughout life include at least two nonconsecutive bouts per week of exercises for all the major muscle groups.  Participating in muscular-strengthening activities can be executed in a stepwise, responsive manner by learning how to execute the movements properly before adding any overload—i.e., weight. It is well documented that muscular strength can improve in previously inactive adults regardless of the muscle fiber loss that occurs, while stronger muscles also support our joint structures.  Appreciating our ability to independently carry out activities of daily living such as carrying heavier grocery bags or performing household cleaning—can positively inform our view of attending to our muscular capability.  Bringing our attention and awareness to the miraculous way our bodies continue to function throughout the lifespan, and adjusting our self-care to meet the adaptations that come with aging, is a beautiful way to count each day a blessing.