Are you really too old to be training?
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
A few weeks ago, a dear ninja friend, who is 46 years old, sent me a text to say that he was starting physical therapy for his hip and his shoulder. On day one, his physical therapist said to him, "Dude. You need to stop training like a 30 year old."
Here is my reaction:
OK, I told you in my last blog that all physical therapists and personal trainers have a super ego complex about thinking they know the best way to help people get strong. I'm one of them. And I'm not a physical therapist so I have never seen my friend in a clinical setting. And I'm still really pissy about getting rejected from medical school so I love to pretend like I'm also a doctor when I am definitely not a doctor. Like Lucy Van Pelt, except being thirty-six years old instead of eight.
However, with the professional qualifications that I do have, I know for sure that my 46 year old friend is strong as fuck.
And I also know that discouraging him from training is a great way to ensure that he stops being strong as fuck.
AND ANOTHER THING *raises pointer finger*, there is a mental consequence of this kind of comment which cannot be ignored: My friend was crushed when his PT said this to him. Because as my mom says, rule number one of health care is you cannot take away someone's hope. Ever. I love to argue with my mom but she's right about this one. Doing no harm includes mental harm.
So we're super bummed about the implication that age, especially the young age of 46, is a barrier to high-level exercise. We're also bummed about the macerated emotional state that comes with it.
Blaming injuries on age alone is a load of crap.
But! My friend is getting hurt! Which will not make him stronger! So he obviously can't just keep doing what he's doing either! Unless he is stupid! Which he is not!
So if you can't keep going and you can't stop, what is the other option? Glad you asked. Lazer's got you.
We change as we get older. Since my friend is getting hurt while doing the same things that didn't used to cause hurt, the question becomes: What has changed? What is actually hurting my friend?
How Training Works:
Step one: You work out at a level which challenges your current body abilities.
Step two: You recover from that workout.
Chronic injuries occur as a combination of step one (you did more work than your body could handle), and step two (your body did not recover well enough to handle the next onslaught). Here's why it has to be both. If your mistake was only in step one—you overworked your body—but then took a week off, that's a solution. If your mistake was in step two—you didn't recover well—but your subsequent training sessions get a little easier for a while because you're sore/tired, then that's also a solution. These solutions don't make for much training progress, but they do prevent injuries.
In order to get hurt, you need both. Too much work and not enough recovery, on a regular basis.
If you don't have the balance between the two, it seems like there are only two possible approaches. Do easier workouts, or take longer recoveries. But these options are opposite sides of the same coin: move less. Less intensely, less frequently, less everything. For many of us, including my ninja friend, moving less sucks. But there is a third option that gets ignored. If you don't feel like exercising your reading muscles, you can scroll down now to where it says HERE IS THE THIRD OPTION!!!!!!!!!
We are much more durable and capable than we give ourselves credit for.
If you're still with me, woohoo! Let's talk about why blaming injuries on age alone is a bunch of crap.
A chronic injury occurs from a lengthy cycle of asking too much from your body and not giving your body what it needs to recover from your bitchy demands. You know your friend who never offers to do anything for you, never shows up to the shit going on in your life, but always texts you seven reminders about her kid's birthday party and to please remember to make a fourteen minute video for her husband's birthday? That's what you're doing to your body. This isn't about age. This is about taking taking taking what you want from your body and never offering your body anything in return. You're being the shitty friend you hate, but to yourself!!!! You already have one of her in your life! Don't pile it on!
This is why giving the answer "His age is the problem" is just really lazy healthcare. Because we know two things well. One) is that kids get chronic injuries too. All the time. Gymnastics is full of them, in spite of those kids being 11 years old and some of the strongest athletes on the planet. Two) is that that many, many people are high-level athletes until the day they die.
Fauja Singh, who is currently 109 years old, stopped running marathons when he was A HUNDRED AND TWO. And while Fauja might be a freak-of-nature example of health/stubbornness, he's certainly not the only old person who is showing us the possibilities. Angela Jimenez wrote an entire book documenting masters athletes. You can purchase her gorgeous photo book here. The World Masters Games, the Olympics of senior sport (age groups go from 35 years to 105 years), is expecting approximately 50,000 competitors in their 2022 Games. And those are just the senior athletes who are ballsy enough to register for a world competition and fly to Japan in order to compete in it. 50,000!
And maybe you're like oh look at these cute old guys running their cute old races. In that case maybe you'd like to meet Lynn Rathjen (not pictured) on the course, who just ran an official 5:59:18 mile in August. He's 75 years old.
Or maybe you'd like to sidle up next to 82 year old Irene Obera at the start line someday. Sweet old woman, yeah? Sure, til she blows you away with her 37:25 time in the 200m dash. Lots--LOTS--of people at any age cannot match this time.
In 2016, Elfriede Fuchs threw a shot put 13 feet, 4 inches.
She was NINETY-SIX at the time.
There is a disconnect when we think about aging athletes. And we have this same, strange disconnect about women. We see tons of examples of really strong, capable old people and women. But we always think that old people and women as a group are not strong. Any individual? Sure. But as a whole? No way. We think of men between the ages of 18 and 29 as strong. Men between 30 and 40 are defying the odds in unbelievable ways. Everyone else is not as strong, or not strong at all. An old woman is the fragilest thing you could possibly be.
And this is WRONG and DELIBERATELY IGNORANT and DETRIMENTALLY SHORT-SIGHTED. It is BAD FOR SOCIETY to LIVE UNDER THE ASSUMPTION that ENORMOUS GROUPS OF PEOPLE ARE LARGELY INCAPABLE OF DOING ANYTHING.
Whew, I just pulled a muscle while furiously typing all those caps. Must be my age.
We think of age-related diseases like arthritis as an inevitable part of aging. Yet tons of people never get it: as in, 77% of the adults in this country do not have doctor-diagnosed arthritis. And of the 23% that do? Only a quarter of them have severe limitations from it. Arthritis and age-related deteriorations have become a point of terror for adults in their 40's and 50's, anticipating that the end is surely nigh. But in reality, most people will never experience a real problem with arthritis.
Similarly, we feel like joint replacements are inevitable in some way, in some joint. That our bum knee is bound to require a replacement someday, because they're so commonly done. But how many Americans have had a joint replaced? Only 4%. Common, yet not so common after all. We are much more durable and capable than we give ourselves credit for, even in old age.
HERE IS THE THIRD OPTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
So what is actually hurting my friend? I would wager that it is neither his training, nor his age, nor his recovery, but rather a third factor that is rarely considered: his mobility and his end-range-of-motion strength which is directly tied to mobility or lack thereof.
It's this last part that really means the most to me, because I *hate* recovery. Recovery is fucking boring. You're sitting around smashing a baseball into your leg for self-massage, or taking days off, or laying on a hot pack, or other intensely boring activities. I can't tolerate it. I'm like a jumping bean. I've got shit to do. So if your bank account is getting depleted faster than it's accumulating, you've got two options. Spend less (boring) or add capital (fun!!!!!!)
One method of lessening recovery times is to be stronger to begin with. That way, your same awesome workouts won't cause as much damage as they were. You won't overdraw the account, even with really expensive purchases, if your account balance is so high you can Scrooge McDuck ski across it.
This sounds like I'm just telling people to exercise more and they'll be fine. That's not it. You don't build your bank account balance by doing more of the same squats and more of the same pull-ups. It's by doing specific strength training at end ranges of motion. It's not doing more overhead presses, it's in holding a weight statically overhead and walking around with it. You improve the risky, painful part of the exercise by getting stronger in the risky, painful part of the exercise.
It's not doing heavy deadlifts, it's in improving your deep hip flexion so your back doesn't have to work like Madame Loisel and her frowsy hair every time you pick something up.
Which bring us to a monumentally important point: Joints can be strong and 100% healthy in one part of their range of motion, while weak and hugely dysfunctional in another part.
So how do we increase capacity in the dysfunctional parts, thereby allowing training to continue until we are 102 and still running marathons? Put another way, how do we mitigate age-related changes in the body instead of just putting people out to pasture?
There are two parts to this answer:
1) How/why joints and muscles lose range of motion over time and how this seems like aging but it's not
2) The exact order of operations to end the cycle of chronic injury in middle age and beyond: Access. Strength. Speed.
In the last 18 months of keeping this blog, I've learned one thing for sure. It's that when I make a list, that list instantly becomes the next number of blogs on the subject. Which means you're about to get two more blogs on this topic of training and aging.
Don't let this recent large posting gap fool you! I've got part two already drafted. You won't have to wait an agonizing six weeks to get the answers. This must be how people felt when Breaking Bad was airing. Just soul-crushing suspense. Vince Gilligan and I have similarly rabid fanbases. I get it. It's a-comin.
In the meantime, let's start improving your confidence. I don't care how old you are, you're not too old to work out or to learn new skills. You're not fragile and you're not destined to be in pain forever. Because joints that don't move well are designed to be painful; if they don't move well, what would be the best method of discouraging you from using them? Yep, by making them hurt. Mobility training is a safe way of regaining access to stiff, sore joints. When they're not so stiff, they're not so sore, even in debilitating conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
Bonus: with more confidence, less pain, and less stiffness, that defeated emotional state we talked about in the beginning? Like a boggart in the closet, it's just gonna go away, just like the fictitious asshole clown that it is.
Feeling like you want to know more before I can write it? Here are a whole slew of shoulder mobility exercises you can start with.
See you in part two!