We all realize that fitness tends to decline with age, however we rarely ask the question – Why we lose fitness as we age??? Having a better understanding of what happens physiologically can help us delay and possibly reverse any fitness decline that happens with age.

When it comes to losses in fitness we will look at two main categories – cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength.

When it comes to strength there are several reasons this declines with age. Some of the most common include: sarcopenia (loss of muscle with age), decrease in certain hormones (specifically testosterone and growth hormone), a decrease ability to synthesize protein, and a reduction in calories/protein which leads to a loss in muscle mass. While these changes may seem inevitable there are several things that can be done to help prevent/delay these from occurring:

  • Engage in Strength Training – Performing strength training especially with moderate to heavy resistance will combat potential loss of muscle. Utilizing moderately heavy weights will help prevent the loss of fast twitch muscle fibers that occur at an alarming rate in seniors. Fast twitch muscle fibers are responsible for power and quickness.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy – There are many doctors who specialize in treating low testosterone and/or growth hormone. Bringing these hormones up to levels found earlier in life can help maintain or increase strength, energy, and muscle mass. In addition most experts agree that is the doses fall within acceptable limits the chances of negative side effects is low.
  • Consume Adequate Calories and Especially Protein – Since the body doesn’t synthesize protein (amino acids) as well – it is important to consume enough protein to meet your needs. If you are highly active your protein requirements will be higher – but even if you’re a couch potato don’t skimp on the protein. While the dietary recommendation is .36 grams per pound of body weight – many studies have shown that this is not enough to increase muscle mass, especially if your highly active.
  • Consider Supplements – While there are numerous supplements that appear to be helpful in muscle development – a recent study of fish oil done by Gordon Smith and colleagues from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis showed that fish oil slowed muscle loss that typically occurs with age.

In addition to muscle strength our body also loses cardiovascular endurance. So why is it that our kids are zipping by us during a run? Why do we see a 5-10% decrease in VO2 max as we age? Some of the reasons include a loss of elasticity in major blood vessels, maximum heart rate decreases with age, the respiratory system decreases forced lung capacity, and the blood undergoes a loss of hemoglobin (oxygen carrying protein), hematocrit (proportion of red blood cells to plasma) as well as red cell mass.

So are we doomed to losing our cardiovascular endurance? While we will ultimately see a decline in our cardiovascular endurance there are several things we can do to delay the reduction:

  • Don’t take an extended layoff – While we can get away with taking extended layoffs from training in our youth – it doesn’t appear we can do this as we age. It appears that we reach somewhat of a point of no return around the late 60s that seems reversing any losses much more difficult.
  • Supplementation – Certain supplements like beet root and citrulline have been shown to boost nitric oxide levels which help dilate blood vessels and help with blood flow.
  • Incorporate various types of training – Perform low to moderate, moderate to high, and high intensity training cardiovascular training. Mixing up your training styles will stimulate all components of your cardiovascular systems – not just one. Going for a fast walk/slow jog as well as doing high intensity interval training will ensure maximizing the cardiovascular benefit.

Glen Carrigan is co-owner and operator of Freedom 4 Life Fitness with his wife Yvette. Glen & Yvette are dedicated and experienced personal trainers providing residents of Leawood, Overland Park KS, and greater Kansas City with an outstanding fitness experience.