Written by Coach Cathy Barry - Head Coach of Eclipse Track & Field Club
Earth to Earth, Dust to Dust:
As I sat in a virtual meeting with some colleagues I listened at the ongoing chatter and conversations happening between some older athletes before the meeting started. They complained about this and that hurting, how it was a problem to get down on your knees to garden and get back up and how their bodies ached. Now these athletes were only about 10 years or so older than me but it made me stop and think - is this what I have to look forward to in another 10 years??? Now, if there's a few certainties in life, such as death and taxes, you can bet that getting older is in the mix. We all get older each and every day and at some point, hopefully after a long and peaceful life, we return to the earth - "earth to earth, dust to dust". I'm actually not here to debate what happens in the afterlife but rather what happens to us before we reach that point, the "Getting Older" point. For some of us "Getting Older" feels like it's happening sooner than we want and for others we fight it day in day out. I'm one of those samurai warriors out there, not giving up the fight till the last man is standing - a fight to the death.
So what does happen to us eventually once we start Aging? In this blog I will only explore the physiological changes that affect a person's performance rather than the psychological, behavioural, sexual or cognitive changes that happen as we age.
Sticks and Stone May Actually Break Your Bones:
Normally, during our adolescence and adulthood, our bones undergo a remodelling process where mature bone tissue is removed and new bone tissue is formed. However, as we age, this process slows down and our bones shrink in size and density, resulting in loss of bone tissue, reduced mineral content. Many become more prone and suffer from osteoporosis– a condition in which bones are less dense, more fragile, and prone to fractures, compromising the skeletal integrity of our body. The end results are less stability, balance and coordination which now make us more susceptible to injury and falls. For anyone with aging parents, we've seen what the smallest of injuries can do. Hip Fractures from a fall are the leading cause of injury and mortality in the elderly, especially women. (The 1-Year Mortality of Patients Treated in a Hip Fracture Program for Elders - National Library of Medicine - 2010). Factors the affect that can drastically affect the amount of bone loss in individuals are an inactive lifestyle, poor nutrition, hormonal changes and loss of calcium and other minerals in bone.
What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger?
Actually, in this case, what makes you stronger that you will eventually loose may eventually kill you. As we age our muscle mass declines, we lose strength, endurance, flexibility and our performance are greatly affected. Just like our weakening bones, loss of muscle mass over time also affects our stability, balance, coordination which can lead to increased injuries, falls, fractures and in some cases, it might just kill you. Another consequence to aging is that our Type II Muscle Fibres - the ones referred to as "Fast Twitch" will also decline in number and function. For some this might not be an issue but for athletes, this will greatly affect performance. You won't be able to sprint any faster, jump further or explode out of your favourite recliner anymore. And if that wasn't enough, the aging process kicks us one more time when we are already down and we start to lose the cells that support the repair and growth of the skeletal muscles in response to exercise. Recovery from activities takes longer.
Be Still My Beating Heart:
Our Cardiovascular System is responsible for the delivery of oxygenated blood to the many parts of our body. The biggest muscle in this system is our heart. Lucky for us, the aging process never discriminates and is all inclusive. We become more susceptible to developing atherosclerosis, arrhythmia, high blood pressure etc., all which can lead to heart failure, heart attacks and strokes to name a few.
Sounds like fun eh? And not to be outdone, our blood vessels which carry Oxygen and nutrients, known as our "arteries" carry oxygenated (O2) rich blood also stiffen and harder over time, making it harder to circulate blood, resulting in less O2 blood to an already compromised heart muscle. The outcome of hardened arteries is hypertension - which can almost certainly lead to heart attacks or strokes. The years of eating a diet high in processed fats and lack of regular exercise now come back to haunt you in the form of fatty deposits known as plaque in your arteries. This means less oxygenated blood as well as blood nutrients, which affects the heart muscle cells and weakens the heart, diminishing its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body. So, while the excitement of the day may make your heart flutter with anticipation, never worry as aging will "still your beating heart eventually".
Every Breath You Take:
With the knowledge that we've gained above regarding less oxygenated blood running through our hardened and narrowing arteries, there's also other variables which affects the amount of Oxygen we take in. Your capacity to take air into your lungs diminishes due to a number of factors: the alveoli (the small sacs in your lungs) may change shape and become baggy, your diaphragm (the muscle used to draw in and let out breath) is weaker, and your ribcage - weakened due to a loss in density can't contract to expand the way it used to. All these factors will now affect your maximum ability to use oxygen (VO2max). This is a definite issue as our bodies can no longer use oxygen as effectively as we once did, causing a huge decline in performance and endurance. According to the National Library of Medicine "VO2max decreases gradually with advancing age, and the rate of decline is approximately 10% per decade after the age of 25 years, and more specifically was suggested to be 15% between the ages of 50 and 75".
"You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old"
As you see, the image I've just painted for you regarding the aging body doesn't look to promising.... or does it? If we can't help getting older, what can we do? The saying goes: "You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old". Getting older is not the problem, it's actually how you age that is the real problem and it's not something people think about until it's too late. Long and behold, we start complaining about this and that and how we can't do the things we used to. Our quality of life become greatly affected and we have even more difficulty in being physically active. One thing is for sure, if you are leading a life where you are not physically active, have an unhealthy lifestyle and eating habits, are overweight, the outcome is not going to look very good as you age. According to the National Library of Medicine: "The demographic changes observed during the aging process leads to a trajectory of disability, independent of other influencing comorbidities. For instance, individuals surviving into old age are at risk of functional impairments – inability to transfer, walk, dress, eat, toilet, and bathe – which subsequently lead a loss of independence, impairment in quality of life and institutionalization. Individuals are exposed to a longer period of time in which they may develop comorbidities and be at risk for developing incident disability."
"Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death." ~Uesugi Kenshin (Samurai Quotes)
While we all can agree that we can't prevent or stop aging, we can perhaps alter the long road to death to be a much more pleasant experience and maybe just maybe, do it on our own terms. In the words of the Samurai, "engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive".
So, what can we do to slow down the aging process:
The key is to start as early as possible to take care of yourself. Treat your body like the temple that it is, a perfectly created receptacle carrying a beautiful soul through the journey of life. It doesn't mean that there won't be curve balls thrown at you but it is ultimately YOUR responsibility to take good care of yourself. Here's a short list of very impactful strategies you can use:
Lead a healthy lifestyle
Physical activity which encompasses cardiovascular exercises, weight training, resistance training, cross training, yoga
Good seeing habits
Maintaining Strong and Healthy Bones
Taking into consideration aging and it's effects on the body, we now need to do Better, Smarter Training. We want to reduce injuries, maximize gains and in return, minimize the effects of aging. For older athletes, High Intensity Interval Training (HITT) works well to improve aerobic capacity and can help reduce the VO2max rate of decline by 5% after age 30 if we continue to compete and train. It's about the quality of the exercises rather than the volume. Longer recovery days become necessary to ensure we recover from the training adaptation or stimulus and prevents injuries from happening. Weight Lifting and Resistance Training helps maintain muscles mass, strength, power and endurance. Stronger muscles, joints and bones means reduced difficulty in performing physical tasks and enhances our energy expenditure. Yoga, helps maintain flexibility of muscles and joints which stiffen as we age. This also means less chance of injuries and even if we fall, we may be able to avoid a sure death.
Let's face it, we can't change the course of our bodies as we age but maybe we can slow it down just a bit in order to still enjoy doing the things we've always done a little bit longer and without hinderance. With all the experience and knowledge we gain as we age, "getting older and wiser" it makes sense to be equipped, aware, educated and armed for the battle ahead.