The Myth of Ageing
Updated: Apr 27, 2018
This article is for anyone who wants to live a long healthy fulfilling life. Please share it with your mature friends and family.
In my work as a physiotherapist I currently see around 60 patients per week across my NHS and private work. Over time you start to pick up on trends. On a daily basis I hear things like, ‘it must be old age’, or ‘never get old Jack’, or ‘I guess it’s just part of ageing…’. You’d think these comments were coming from pensioners. But no, I frequently hear this from people in their 30s and 40s!
It’s true that as we age, our bodies go through changes. On average, we lose 1% of our muscle mass and bone density each year over the age of 30, and just like our skin and hair, so too do our joints gradually age. As the years pass by, our posture, balance and reaction times also worsen. Our ability to recover from new physical stresses can decrease.
However, contrary to popular belief, the physical ‘ageing symptoms’ that we experience have much less to do with our age and far more to do with how many years we have gone through life without truly looking after our highly adaptable bodies. With a simple but regular exercise regime, ageing need not bring with it doom and gloom – and many of its symptoms can in fact be halted or even reversed.
This is taken from a MRI's showing a cross section of the upper leg of three different people. The white part in the centre is the long thigh bone (femur), which is then surrounded by the large dark area (thigh muscles). The most outer layer is fat (adipose tissue). This is clearly a more extreme example, but notice the huge difference in the fat:muscle ratio between the 74 year old and the 70 year triathlete.
Every time I assess a new patient/client, I take a detailed medical history and am able to build a good picture of their physical activity level, both now and over their lifetime. I see people in their 70s, 80s and 90s skip in and out of a physiotherapy session, and they did not end up this way by luck. They have stayed feeling young because they continue to do the things they did when they were young. Equally, years of not physically challenging your body is bound to result in regression. Never has the phrase “use it or lose it” been so true as when it is used in reference to the ageing process.
Another trend I have picked up on is the ‘retirement slump’. You’ve worked hard all your life and now it’s time to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour. Often, this means a reduction in activity levels. But with this relaxation tends to follow worsening mobility, weight gain and new aches and pains. These symptoms can start a negative cycle of reduced mobility and increased pain, leading to further reductions in activity level, then further regression of overall health, and so on. Within two years you’ve aged ten.
The biggest difference between the young and the old is their ability to recover from a period of sickness. In the event of illness, injury or trauma, a young whippersnapper will be able to bounce back quickly, but in older age your mobility and health may struggle to recover back to 100%. This is why it is so important to be much stronger and fitter than you need to be to go about your daily routine. If your body was only just able to tolerate your daily routine before, then you might suddenly find that your 30-minute walk to work becomes a bus ride instead. However, if you’re someone who intentionally walks 60 minutes three times per week, the 30 minute walk that you ‘need’ to do still leaves plenty in the tank.
So to what extent can we actually halt or reverse the ‘symptoms of ageing’? The younger you are, the more active you’ve been throughout your life, and the more dedicated you are to performing the necessary exercise to stay healthy, the better. But whatever your circumstance, you are never too old to become fitter and stronger. Aim to follow the information below and your body will thank you ten years down the line.
Resistance based exercise is the key to maintaining or developing muscle strength. This doesn’t necessarily mean using weights - you can also use exercise bands, resistance machines, or your own bodyweight. In order to gain muscle strength though, the resistance must be heavy enough so that you are struggling after 5-20 repetitions.
To maintain bone density do ‘weight bearing’ exercises that force you to work against gravity. Walking, hiking, jogging, resistance training, dancing, and tennis are all great for this. For our joints, “motion is lotion”. Just as moisturiser keeps our skin looking young, movement keeps a spring in our step. When our joints move through their full range they produce synovial fluid, which is a lubricator. Strong muscles are also highly important in joint health as they support our joints, putting them under less stress.
Fractures from falling over can have a large knock on effect on health in old age. Exercises that challenge your balance, like dancing, tai chi, hiking, pilates, yoga, and weights training will help to protect against this risk. Finally, to preserve good posture, avoid prolonged sitting. Much of the decline in postural muscle strength is caused by remaining static for prolonged periods, so keep moving to maintain them, and strengthen them with resistance exercises such as weights, pilates or yoga.
For musculoskeletal health, a well-balanced exercise routine should aim to target all of the above. It’s worth also doing something that will get your heart rate up along with these exercises, to support your vitally important cardiovascular system.
As a physio, this advice to keep active is pertinent to older generations - but I’m sure there are many younger people who have already given up on some of the activities they once enjoyed, and their health is suffering for it. The fit-as-a-fiddle pensioners that walk through my doors are perfect evidence that its your frame of mind that counts, not your age. So however old you are, get out there, embrace exercise and keep moving.
If you have any health conditions, injuries or you’re just worried about getting involved with exercise again. Contact a local physiotherapist. We are trained in exercise prescription, injury diagnosis/treatment and medical conditions.