Are you really too old to be training? Part three
Updated: Feb 6
Friends! This blog has lots of details so I'm putting the summary sentence first. You can stop reading after this. Ready? Let me get my eel face on...
✨✨At least HALF of the age-related changes to muscles and joints are related to disuse.✨✨
If you remember nothing else, remember that. If you're tired of reading, you're done, you can go. If you want to know why, stay with me for a few minutes!
Here's the last part of my novella on why you don't have to (and shouldn't!!!!) give up on fast, fun workouts as you get older. (Update: I've now made it to page 6 of this blog draft and Narrator's Voice: It was not going to be the last part of the novella.) (Second update: lmaooooooo after page nine I decided I needed to split this into more parts. There is just SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT OSTEOBLASTS.)
It's always in style to joke about being a dinosaur (my adult gymnastics team is literally named Jurassic Gymnastics), or to joke about shredding your rotator cuff if you tried what the teens are doing. But are you a dinosaur? And would you actually shred your rotators if you tried what the teens are doing??
Aging is a weird feeling, and we are deeply conditioned here in America to believe that people become useless as they age. It's harder to tie your shoes, harder to date, harder to get jobs, harder to make your voice heard, harder to make friends, and harder to find competitive sports where you don't feel like, well, the dinosaur of the team. We're decidedly anti-aging around here.
Lots of things are impacted by age but today we're talking about movement. The reality is that after all the joking, the human body is capable of withstanding epic levels of stress up to and including people in their 80's and 90's. People like Ernestine Shepherd are still lifting away at age 84 and beyond.
The question to answer is: Why does athletics get more difficult with age? What's so magic about being twenty that doesn't seem to be there at fifty or eighty? (subquestion to be answered another time: why can't we fucking realize it when we're twenty so we can enjoy it? 😭)
The short answer is that being 20 years old means two main things:
1) Your body's build and repair processes are both at peak excellence. This matters.
2) You don't have many hours logged in an adult body in general. Everything is new and shiny. At 20 you're probably still playing sports for fun and hitting deep squats on the dance floor, which are good for you in lots of ways.
At 35? It might have been 15 years since you played a sport or hit a deep squat. (Not if you join Jurassic Gymnastics, however, where the dance parties are very, very full of deep squats.)
At 45? Could be two and a half decades. This is a big deal. What's gonna happen when you try to squat down to play catch with your kid? What's gonna happen at age 70?
Left to their own devices, our bodies decelerate much more slowly than pop culture would indicate. But if we decelerate ourselves—through shitty diets, inactivity, lack of sunscreen, pollution, bad water—it is inevitable that our bodies will follow our lead. Even a master can only repair so many bad decisions. It's like when your boss hands you a twelve page document of barely complete sentences and asks you to "clean it up" for her presentation to the company CEO at noon that day. You can only repair so much and you gotta let the rest go.
In many ways, we age ourselves. This doesn't mean it's "all our fault" but does mean that we have a say in things. Some lifestyle things we don't choose (hello, Flint Michigan). But other things we do choose. Do we think the knight of the Holy Grail would have been better off from if he hadn't sworn to stay in the chainsaw-floor death cave for eternity? I would think so. Sir you need some fresh air.
Which brings us to the long answer:
Does athletics get more difficult with age:
1) Because we're getting older?
2) Because we stopped training fast and powerful things as often as we used to? Or
3) Because we think we're training fast and powerful things but a part of us is scared of getting hurt by moving too fast so we never actually move fast enough to effectively train speed and power and thus lose those abilities in spite of regularly practicing what we think are fast and powerful efforts?
*raises eyebrow at myself*
It may be all three, but where people shine a bright spotlight is on the first one, while dimming the other two possibilities. I understand why people do this; it's easier to attribute things that make you unhappy to being out of your control. No one wants to believe that they are responsible for any part of their unhappinesses.
And that's where I come in!
Some things absolutely do happen because of age and not for any other reason. But before assuming that all is lost, you'll want to ask if any of the controllable factors might be at play. So let's look at each of the three options in terms of what we can and can't control when it comes to our mystifying senescence.
1) You are getting older.
Yep, best to start here. This is when a whole slew of chronic injuries start showing up, when healing is a little slower than it used to be, when your performance is CLEARLY not what it was when you were 18. I think everyone hits a point where they accept that age is starting to be part of their body's complex equations. I've even noticed that my regularly bloodied hands (from gymnastics and ninja, not from murdering people, yet) take longer to unbloody themselves.
So wound healing—from paper cuts to pulled muscles to torn tendons—slows down. The reasons for this are wayyyyyy beyond my personal training certificate but my Mia Science© understanding is that every part of the process gets delayed. The damaged tissue is slower to indicate trauma. The immune system is slower to respond. The cells who do the new scaffolding and masonry aren't answering their phones.
Meanwhile, the manager cells (who let the immune system know how much damage remains) end up leaving the job site before finishing (or don't call in enough workers in the first place). Sounds like the shitty-ass managers I had at the restaurant where I was a server. I'll never forget being in tears with too many tables and asking my manager to run food to help me out. He (the owner of the restaurant) said, "You're here to help me. Not me to help you." Oh, okay, fuckass. Guess who told all her tables never to go back to your restaurant ever again? That was like fourteen years ago and I STILL tell people not to go to that restaurant. I do love a good grudge. Send me an email with your favorite grudge. The pettier the better.
At least half of the age-related changes to muscles and joints are related to disuse.
This delay in healing can lead to injuries piling up on one another. It's possible we got hurt just as often when we were teens but things healed more quickly. It never felt like we were always hurt. (I remember my mother asking, "What's the injury of the day?" every night when I got home from gymnastics.) Now as 35, 45, 55 year olds, we get the accumulation of the old injuries, the new injuries, and the things that we've been ignoring for ten years but have finally reached their threshold of tolerating our bullshit.
(I would also add that an incomplete effort in proper rehab is part of this frustrating mess. We all tend to rehab an injury until it stops interfering with our day, and then we never bother to do the last 20%. A bunch of 20%s can really add up over time. Something to keep in mind.)
Ok, ok, Mia, I didn't complete my physical therapy. So what? Stop judging me for god's sake. Age still matters, right?
Yup, age still matters. So what parts of your musculoskeletal system change with age? A whole bunch of things! Muscles and joints and bones, oh my!
We'll focus on muscles for today. In our next part, I'm tackling the aging of bones and joints. Fair warning: everything below sounds dreadful on the surface. But is it? As my friend Mallory likes to say with a monocle over one eye, This goes so much deeper than we thought 🧐
Here I present the science of what changes (in green) and then the science of how we can make a difference through action. (in blue) It goes so much deeper than we thought, Mallory.
HOW MUSCLE CHANGES WITH AGE AND WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT!
Muscle Mass Decreases.
For a relatively-inactive person, overall muscle mass decreases by 3%-8% per decade after 30. This happens for a few known reasons (and more than a few unknown reasons).
Muscle mass is built with the help of muscle stem cells. They repair and expand existing muscle tissue. When you strength train, it damages your muscles in a good way. Your body repairs them to be stronger than they were, to better withstand the next demands.
Our muscular stem cells decrease in number over time, which slows down muscle repair and growth. This can lead to overall muscle reduction. What we don't know is the order of operations. Do we get weaker with age because we have fewer muscle repair cells? Or do we have fewer muscle repair cells because we don't use our muscles enough to require repairs? (Remember that if you don't ask your body to use a given function, it stops maintaining that function. If your repair cells never need to make repairs, your body will start getting rid of them as excess material.)
Exercise increases both raw numbers of muscle stem cells and also amplifies their production! Both human and animal research suggests that we can preserve at least some of our stem cells, if not stop the decline completely.
What kind? This review suggests that almost any type of physical activity works to boost stem cell production. Almost anything!!!
Mitochondria numbers decrease.
Our skeletal muscles are packed with mitochondria, famously taught in AP biology as The Powerhouse Of The Cell. These little engines have enormous capacity. (One liver cell can have several thousand mitochondria in it; up to 1/5th of the cell space can be mitochondria.) Even with such a cornucopia of organelles (the name of my forthcoming biological poetry collection), our numbers of mitochondria reduce notably with age. Without the energy output that comes from having fucktons of mitochondria, the muscle always contracts below its maximum potential. Thus, any given muscle will weaken over time.
Being physically active has been shown to increase mitochondrial density and biogenesis! Better than this: it seems like active people maintain very normal mitochondrial function until at least age 75. Scientists suspect that mitochondrial benefits continue beyond this but as you can imagine, finding enough exercise research subjects in their 80's or 90's is a challenge.
What kind? Since mitochondria are responsible for providing tons of power, researchers think that high-intensity interval training is where it's at.
Protein Synthesis Decreases.
We also know that protein synthesis slows down with age, and protein synthesis is what helps build up the beefcake. In young people, just eating sufficient protein is enough to get it into your muscles for growth. Not so true as we age, because of the slowness problem. Even if older people eat sufficient protein, their bodies may not be able to synthesize much of it into muscle tissue before the digestive system digests it. On average, a human's ability to synthesize protein declines by 3.5% per decade. So even when someone is physically active and training, the benefits they reap will likely grow increasingly smaller with age. BOO HISS.
This study, which had participants up to 87 years old, found that exercise combatted the ever-reducing amount of protein synthesis in the body no matter how old you are or what sex you are. Again, can we stop it? Probably not. (Or not yet, anyway! You can be the first!) But can we influence it? Hell yeah.
What kind? Most places I've seen are big on endurance sessions for promoting new protein growth, but this study found it in strength training too. Also nutrition!!! Even if you're digesting a lot of it before it can reach your body, get that proper nutrition in.
Autophagy Gets Discombobulated.
All of our systems go through the process of breaking down old/damaged cells, recycling them, and replacing them with new, better-functioning cells (autophagy). This turnover is critical to staying high-functioning. The entire process slows as we age, which is where we get things like wrinkles (skin turnover slows and replacement cells aren't quite as perfect).
Autophagy is a cascade of cause and effect. Each part of the process triggers the next part of the process. When the ice rink gets enough divots in it, the Zamboni comes out to make new ice and allow the hockey game to continue.
Divots --> Zamboni --> New Ice --> Next Period Starts.
As you age, your older cells get more pronounced divots, and there might be more of them before the sleepy grounds crew realizes you need a Zamboni. But the Zamboni's got a 20 year old engine in it. It can only cover about half the rink before it needs a break. The hockey players come back out onto the ice but they only skate well on half the surface. The other half they just absolutely eat it.
After a while, the players aren't gonna want to come out on the ice anymore because the conditions suck. Same with autophagy. Great new cells will only come in if the old cells are gone and the path has been cleared. There are thousands of cellular cascades; if the origin of these cascades is in old, sluggish cells, all of the cascades slow down. You end up relying on older cells for longer. Autophagy dysfunction is an issue across systems, not just in your muscles and skeleton.
The autophagy question is super interesting. The processes are poorly understood at best, and I'm a poor scientist to be relating the data here. It's well-known that autophagy disregulation is a contributor to muscle atrophy. (Too much breakdown, not enough build up.) But scientists have found that exercise helps to regulate autophagy in a positive way. They think that exercise speeds up and improves the breakdown of old muscle tissue. Remember that the breakdown of tissues is what revs the body to make replacement tissues. This is a good thing.
On top of all of that, this study reminds us that nutrition (especially glucose/amino acid intake) and hormones (especially insulin) remain the most potent negative regulators (that we know of) of muscle autophagy.
But, Mia, didn't you just say that we WANT autophagy? Why are we good with negative regulation, or the STOPPING of autophagy?
Autophagy is a balance. We need cell breakdown to stimulate new cell growth. But too much cell breakdown means a net loss of muscle over time. So we also need components in our body to stop cell breakdown and promote cell build-up. (Remember processes are dependent on each other! Building more cells will notify the breakdown crew that they can take a load off for a while.)
This is where nutrition and hormonal regulation come into play. If a body is doing well, regular exercise will help stimulate old cell breakdown, while good nutrition is a huge influencer on building it back up. Hormones are again way out of my personal trainer pay grade, but we know that nutrition is deeply involved in helping to regulate hormones. (And so many other bodily things.)
What kind? Who knows? My gut suspicion would be that any kind of physical stress is key in tissue turnover, no matter your age. Just get out there and shake yo' thang.
All of this means that in many ways, we are beholden to aging. Our cells are bound to wind down. But we are not beholden to aging on any certain timeline. Our bodies are wildly plastic. They always adapt to exactly what we do. It's never too late to start being proactive.
In our next part, I'll look at what happens to bones and joints when we age. Think osteoarthritis is a foregone conclusion? Think again. See you soon. Don't forget to email me about your favorite grudges. The pettier the better.