I remember when I was 15 years old thinking to myself, “If I live to be 65 years old, that means I’ll be around for 50 more years. Wow, that’s a long time!” When you were 15, 50 years seemed like forever, didn’t it?
We’ve all had these kinds of thoughts when we were young. Our bodies were strong and vital and we thought we’d never grow old. But years sneak up on us, don’t they?
At 40, you start to notice that you don’t recover from exercise like you used to. The aches and pains that disappeared after a few days now linger for months.
At 50, you realize that your body has definitely seen better days. Fifty-five brings a medicine cabinet that is starting to get populated with prescription meds for what our society calls lifestyle diseases. You know what they are: high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and even heart disease.
At 60, aging starts to become a concern. Maybe you notice it’s a little bit of a struggle getting up the stairs, maybe at times you forget where you put your car keys, maybe you hesitate to pick up your grandkids because your back isn’t as strong as it was 20 years ago.
Wow, isn’t this all kind of depressing? Is the best we have to look forward to a continuous descent into ever worsening physical decline? I mean, is a walker or a wheelchair or the assistance from a stranger just to go to the bathroom what we’re destined for?
No! It doesn’t have to be. In this post, I’m going to show you that it’s scientifically and empirically proven that we can delay the aging process or even, possibly, make our bodies young again.
Reversing The Curse
I’m not saying that we can get rid of gray hair (if we have any hair left to gray). I’m also not saying that we can get rid of those crows feet around our eyes or the brown spots accumulating on our hands.
What I am saying is that even if you’re a 57 years old aging couch potato (like I was), you can once again have a strong and vigorous body, perhaps even one to rival the one you had in your thirties or forties.
And here’s something very important. Not only can you recapture strength even into your eighties, your muscle cells can actually regain a gene expression that is of a much younger age than your actual chronological age.
Did you catch that? Your muscles can not only get stronger, they can get younger as well!!!
Life Span Versus Health Span
Now, no one can guarantee you a long life. Our lifespan (the number of years we live) is in the hands of the Lord. But we can strive to improve our healthspan (the years we live with good health).
In this post, I’ll show a scientifically proven way to improve the cellular age of your muscles.
And I’ll also show you how to develop better muscle quality. That means you’ll have stronger, healthier pain-free muscles and joints.
You don’t have to resign yourself to the fact that your body has to eventually disintegrate into a pool of mush.
Before we look at the science, let’s take a deeper look at the problem.
Aging Muscle – The Danger Of Sarcopenia
After the age of 30, our muscle mass begins to deteriorate. It happens to everyone, and it’s called age-related sarcopenia. However, for sedentary individuals, the loss of muscle mass can be profound and ultimately become a dangerous health situation.
Researchers estimate that physically inactive individuals can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. This study is a little more conservative and states that age-related sarcopenia begins in approximately the fifth decade of life (our 40s) and proceeds at a rate of 8% every decade.
That means by the time you’re 70 you could have lost about 24% of your muscle mass.
Different muscle groups may also be more affected than others. Research has shown that you could lose as much as 40% muscle mass in your quadriceps muscles (thighs) between the ages of 20 – 80. See my post here on why barbell squats are an important exercise for all adults.
Age-related Loss Of Muscle Strength
Muscle loss translates into a loss of muscle strength. Older adults can expect to be at least 20% to 40% weaker than their younger adult selves. However, after the age of 60, the loss of muscle strength exceeds the loss of muscle mass. This study concluded that,
Muscle strength might be more important than muscle mass as a determinant of functional limitations and mobility status in older age.
Think about how the loss of muscle strength could affect your quality of life. Does your house have stairs to climb? What about taking packages out of your car? Do you get off a toilet every day? If we want to be able to perform these activities well into old age, we must maintain muscle strength.
Losing too much strength due to aging means losing independence and perhaps even a devolution into a life of frailty.
Why Do Our Muscles Decline With Age?
As researchers delve more into the science of aging, they have proposed a number of reasons why our muscles deteriorate with age. These include programmed cell death, oxidative stress, alterations in protein turnover, inflammation, hormonal dysregulation, disuse, and mitochondria dysfunction.
While all these factors play an important role in the aging of muscle mass, mitochondrial dysfunction has caught the attention of researchers.
The Role Of Mitochondria Dysfunction
You’ll remember from high school biology that mitochondria are the power plants of your cells. Researchers are now convinced that dysfunction within these mitochondria is a major cause of aging. They are, however, not as of yet sure of the exact processes involved.
If you’re really into the geeky science behind mitochondrial dysfunction and aging, see here and here. Also, Dr. Rhonda Patrick from the Found My Fitness podcast has a fascinating interview with Dr. Judith Campisi of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging here. They discuss various theories of aging and possible life extension strategies. Again, beware, it’s science heavy.
But consider this. If you could limit mitochondrial damage, you should theoretically be able to slow down the process of muscle aging. Let’s take that a step further. If you could improve the function of your mitochondria, could you reverse the aging process and possibly make your muscles young again?
Researchers suggest that this may be possible.
Strength Training Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle
In a 2007 study, researchers led by Simon Melov of the Buck Institute studied 25 healthy, relatively active, older individuals (≈70 years old) and 26 younger (≈30 years old) sedentary individuals. Skeletal muscle biopsies were performed on the younger and older individuals. The older individuals were placed on a 6-month progressive (weights gradually increased) strength training program.
After the 6-month exercise period, muscle biopsies were performed on 14 of the older individuals. Okay, you’re probably thinking the population size is not that large. True, but studies of this type are extremely difficult to perform. However, the study was well randomized and controlled.
Okay, you’re probably thinking the population size is not that large. True, but studies of this type are extremely difficult to perform. However, the study was well randomized and controlled.
Nonetheless, the results were astounding!
The Results Of The Buck Study
After the 6-month strength training program, the study researchers found that,
…the older individuals were able to improve strength by approximately 50%, to levels that were only 38% less than that of young individuals…”. This means that the older individuals who were engaged in the weight lifting program were able to narrow the strength gap between themselves and the 30-year-olds from 50% to 38%.
That’s a 36% improvement in strength in just six months. Imagine what could happen after three years of training. See my results later in the post.
Does Stronger Mean Younger?
Okay, so far this study showed that older people even up to their 70s can recapture strength. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they reversed their age, right?
Well, yes and no. If I’m stronger today at 61 years old than I was at 30 years old, then I’ve in a sense recaptured the strength of my youth. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll have another 30 years to live.
But it may have an important effect on my healthspan. If I can remain strong in my years going forward, then my risk of disability is greatly reduced.
But let’s get back to the question of getting younger. Did the seniors who lifted weights get younger? Let’s see what the study said.
Researchers in the Buck Study performed muscle biopsies on seniors before and after a 6-month training regimen in order to examine their mitochondria. Previous to weight training, even though the seniors were healthy, their mitochondria revealed a gene expression that was consistent with their age.
However, when the researchers observed the muscle biopsies in the seniors who had weight trained for six months, they found,
…a remarkable reversal of the expression profile of 179 genes associated with age and exercise training…Genes that were down-regulated with age were correspondingly up-regulated with exercise, while genes that were up-regulated with age, were down-regulated with exercise.
Genes that are downregulated with age show a marked reversal to youthful levels with exercise, and genes that are upregulated with age also show the same trend to return to youthful levels in association with exercise.
In other words, the 14 older individuals who weight trained developed younger muscles as expressed by their genes.
The researchers summed up by stating,
We report here that healthy older adults show a gene expression profile in skeletal muscle consistent with mitochondrial dysfunction and associated processes such as cell death, as compared with young individuals. Moreover, following a period of resistance exercise training in older adults, we found that age-associated transcriptome expression changes were reversed, implying a restoration of a youthful expression profile.
Did you get that? When it comes to muscle mitochondria, weight training can reverse almost 40 years of aging!
Weight training, however, is not the only way to improve mitochondrial function. Let’s take a look at a Mayo Clinic study.
The Mayo Clinic Study — Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Exercise
As I’ve mentioned, researchers believe that mitochondrial dysfunction plays a key role in the aging of muscle. This dysfunction ultimately leads to a loss of strength and endurance.
In 2017, the Mayo Clinic released a report on their finding concerning muscle cell adaptations of younger and older individuals as a relation to different types of exercise.
The younger age group (aged 18 to 30) and the older (age 65 to 80) were split into 3 different exercise groups. These were high-intensity interval training (HIIT), specifically biking and walking, strength training using weights, and a combination of moderate intensity interval and strength training.
Following 12 weeks of training, researchers took a biopsy from the thigh muscle of each individual. They then compared the molecular makeup and lean muscle mass of each group, along with sedentary controls.
This is what they found.
Results of the Mayo Clinic Study
The Mayo team found that strength training is more effective at building muscle than the other forms of exercise. That was an expected finding.
Another expected result was that HIIT had the greatest effect at inducing positive changes at a cellular level, especially on mitochondria.
However, what surprised the Mayo researchers was the effect of HIIT on the muscle cells of the older group.
The Older HIIT Group Showed Dramatic Mitochondrial Improvement
While the younger group of HIIT individuals showed a 49% increase in mitochondrial capacity, the older volunteers experienced a stunning 69% increase. Combined training produced the least favorable results.
Also, the HIIT group comprised of older individuals showed the highest amount of increased gene expression which also surpassed that of the younger HIIT group.
The researchers also found that HIIT caused an increased expression of the genes that produce mitochondrial proteins and protein responsible for muscle growth. This means that HIIT may slow down or even reverses the age-related decline of muscle.
The Conclusion of the Mayo Clinic Study Authors
Dr. Sreekumaran Nair, one of the Mayo clinic’s study authors stated,
Unlike liver, muscle is not readily regrown. The cells can accumulate a lot of damage, however, if exercise restores or prevents deterioration of mitochondria and ribosomes in muscle cells, there’s a good chance it does so in other tissues, too.
According to Nair, exercise may prevent mitochondrial deterioration and possibly reverse damage already done, even in other tissues.
The editors from Science Daily were also enthusiastic concerning the results of the study.
… exercise — and in particular high-intensity interval training in aerobic exercises such as biking and walking — caused cells to make more proteins for their energy-producing mitochondria and their protein-building ribosomes, effectively stopping aging at the cellular level.
So, according to this study, the best way to restore or prevent muscle deterioration is to engage in HIIT.
However, is HIIT alone the best exercise for anti-aging?
The Best Anti-Aging Exercise Strategy
Concerning the best anti-aging exercise program, Sreekumaran Nair stated,
Based on everything we know, there’s no substitute for these exercise programs when it comes to delaying the aging process. These things we are seeing cannot be done by any medicine. Exercise is critically important to prevent or delay aging.
Ok, but which is the best? Nair clarified by adding,
If people have to pick one exercise, I would recommend high-intensity interval training, but I think it would be more beneficial if they could do 3-4 days of interval training and then a couple days of strength training.
From a cellular standpoint, HIIT is the best anti-aging exercise program. However, HIIT will not build the muscle quality that strength training can provide. Therefore, in order for you to achieve improved health and possibly a longer life span, it would benefit you to combine both methods of training.
Now, this is all good in theory. But an important saying goes, “the best exercise program for you is the one that you’ll stick with.” While HIIT has been proven to be the best at optimizing cellular function, it’s also extremely difficult to do.
Does it really help our cause if the best exercise for anti-aging is nearly impossible for us sedentary over-45er’s to actually engage in?
The Problem With HIIT
There is no one standardized HIIT workout routine. The Tabata method, though, gives an idea of what’s generally involved. This method calls for 20 seconds of maximum effort and is followed by a short 10 seconds of rest. This cycle is repeated eight times.
For example, you sprint on a treadmill at an all out pace for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 seconds. You rinse and repeat for seven more times.
Greatist has a great infographic on HIIT.
I’ve never tried this type of exercise nor do I expect I ever will. If you can do it, God bless you. It’s supposed to be utterly brutal.
Recovering From Chronic Illness and HIIT
Now, if you’ve been sedentary your whole life or you’re recovering from a chronic health condition like I was (chronic fatigue syndrome), does that mean that we should entirely discount HIIT?
Not necessarily. Dr. Mercola has suggested a modified HIIT here.
Again, at 57 years old and recovering from CFS, I wouldn’t consider Mercola’s HIIT workout. After watching him do it, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to recover sufficiently.
So what kind of high-intensity exercise can we actually do that will give us the best anti-aging cellular benefits?
One thing we shouldn’t do is despise the day of small beginnings. Meaning we start from where we are and then progress. Let me briefly illustrate this from my experience.
57 Years Old Untrained, Sedentary, and Recovering from CFS
Four years ago, at 57 years old, I was about 80% recovered from a 30-year struggle with CFS. I was also recovered from a two-year bout of severe bursitis in both shoulders.
Needless to say from a musculoskeletal perspective, I was in pitiful shape (I had been doing a brisk 35-minute walk at least 5 days/week for about 6 years)
One evening, I happened to glance at my arms and was shocked at what I saw. My arms were puny and frail looking. That was my motivation to start strength training.
Initially, I started with 15-pound dumbbells. I did three sets of eight reps of bench press, overhead press, and curls three times a week. I didn’t have a specific plan.
Since I had no pain and little fatigue, I continued on. After a few weeks, I graduated to a barbell. My son had an inclined squat machine so I used that to exercise my legs.
As the months went by, I thought I could do this consistently, but I needed a plan. I eventually found the Starting Strength method. This system is a barbell program that involves four basic exercises: the deadlift, back squat, bench press, and overhead press.
So, I went out and bought some Olympic weights and a power rack, and I started the program. Remarkably, I experienced very little fatigue from Starting Strength and I progressed rapidly. If you’re interested in Starting Strength, check out Mark Rippetoe’s excellent book here.
See my post here on how I used Starting Strength to get stronger.
Where My Strength Is At Now
After three years of lifting, I’ve graduated to an intermediate level. At this stage, it’s a little more difficult to make gains. However, last month at 61 years old, I pulled a 300-pound deadlift at a weight of 167 pounds.
I’m not saying you have to lift weights to get strong. Some people get ripped on body weight exercises. But strength training with weights the right way is guaranteed to build muscle.
So if a completely untrained individual recovering from CFS can lift weights, many of you can as well. The only thing holding you back is if you have a debilitating illness.
By the way, for you ladies out there thinking weightlifting is not for you, Barbara has been lifting for 3 years as has my 28-year-old daughter Nicole.
If you’re an older adult and you want to get into barbell training, an excellent resource that will answer all your questions is The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40.
But what about HIIT????
Me and HIIT
Until recently, I haven’t been able to do any kind of serious HIIT. Every time I tried, I developed severe fatigue that often compromised my weight training. So, I just continued to walk.
If you can’t do HIIT, then definitely walk. I believe this has been one of the most important factors in my healing from CFS.
Recently though, I’ve started to introduce my body to some HIIT.
I Begin HIIT
I went on a keto diet in August 2017. Within a few months, I felt better than I had in over 30 years. Most of the fatigue symptoms left my body and I experienced a surge of energy.
So last month I decided to start to add in some HIIT to my routine. Here’s what I do on my treadmill.
- 3-minute warm-up at 3.5 miles per hour (heart rate is at 60% of max)
- 1-minute run at 4.0 miles per hour (HR is at 80% of max)
- 2-minutes at 3.5 miles per hour
- Continue the above 2 sequences for 4 more times
- 3-minute warm-down at 3.5 miles per hour
I do this twice a week.
So far this has been working well for me. I suspect over the coming months I’ll probably improve cardiovascularly, and I may be able to intensify the program.
Even though I’m not doing the classic HIIT, I am getting some intensity. As I said, we should not despise the days of small beginnings.
Okay, am I getting younger? I don’t know. I do know I’m the strongest I’ve ever been. And I know I feel better than I have in 30 years. Something must be working.
The Bottom Line
HIIT combined with resistance training is a scientifically proven anti-aging strategy. Experientially, I can attest to that fact.
As the people from Nike say, “Just do it”.
Okay, that’s it for this post. Remember, we would love to hear from you. Have a blessed week.
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