Best approach to exercise for feeling strong and limber over lifespan?
March 2, 2015 5:22 AM   Subscribe

What's the best approach to exercise if the goal is not only longevity, but comfort and ease of movement over the entire lifespan? I've been moderate strength training for a year, and while I've gotten a lot stronger, the crackling in my knees and some stiffness is making me question whether this is the right kind of exercise for my goals.

I'm very impressed with the results I've seen from strength training-- I work out with a trainer who is built like a house, and I'm getting there myself. But my trainer has crackling knees and lots of stiffness. I'm noticing more crackling in my knees, too, and I wonder if strength training is great for building a great 30-something body now, but leads to a painful 80-year-old body later. When I did yoga years ago, I became extremely flexible but not nearly as strong as I am now. However, my yoga teachers in their 80s seemed to be in great health.

My question is: what's the optimal approach to exercise if my goals are to be strong and fit for the rest of my days, have a body that is comfortable to move? Everyone talks about how strength training is important for women, but do weightlifters and personal trainers live long, healthy lives?

Ultimately the question is this: if you look at people in their 90s who move comfortably, feel good, and enjoy health: what was their exercise regimen?
posted by airguitar2 to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Not quite the direct answer wtr to explict strength training, but my maternal grandparents were super mobile well into their late 80's and they strength trained at the local Jack Lalane gym 3-4x a week after they retired. However, they were always fairly active- when they were younger they hiked a lot and swam in oceans regularly, and they maintained lots of walking and calisthenics on a regular basis. Once they retired they both went swimming and did weights 3-4x a week at the local Jack LaLane gym. My grandmother in particular would take the Atalantic city gambling busses, not to go gamble, but to go to the beach and swim at least 1x a week. They gardened, and treated housework like a full body workout.

The mix of swimming and weights was probably the key there, in the end arthritis did catch up with them, but they kept up with the gym as long as humanely possible.
posted by larthegreat at 6:01 AM on March 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The only people I've witnessed who were in their 80's and still had strength and flow of movement are martial artists, Yoga practitioners, and Alexander Technique practitioners.

I should mention that in all these cases they weren't just people who studied the stuff- They were all instructors who had been practicing daily for many years. Alexander Technique is not a workout routine- it's a technique that teaches efficient and free-flowing movement. Yoga and martial arts (when done correctly) also use that principle of efficient and free-flowing movement. So I think probably anything that implements that philosophy of efficiency through movement will probably do the trick. It's not what activity you do, but HOW you do it that matters and that is something that a good yoga or martial arts instructor will emphasize.
posted by rancher at 6:22 AM on March 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

In general, my response is, "Whatever exercise you will keep doing."

I don't think it matters what sort of exercise you do as long as you keep doing it for as long as your body allows you too.

As far as weight lifting in particular....

I'm 34 now and I've been strength training twice a week for about the last two years. I'm also trying to lose weight which doesn't really go hand in hand with building strength but I weigh 225Lbs at 5'9" and can now dead lift 340Lbs, squat 250Lbs, bench 200Lbs, and press 140Lbs if that gives you any indication of where I am in relation to you.

My joints have always been noisy (for at least the last 15 years) and often sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies while I'm lifting but they've actually gotten just a little bit quieter since I started lifting.

The only thing I think you need to do is add some manner of stretching or mobility routine on your off days. You'll be more flexible, recover faster, and supposedly make more progress with your strength training. That last one has something to do with the sheath that encases each of your muscles being a limiting factor in muscle growth and stretching your muscles stretches that sheath and allows for more muscle growth. But the faster recovery and gained (or potentially in your case re-gained) flexibility is more than enough reason to do it. At the very least I can promise that adding some manner of stretching or mobility routine won't be counter-productive to the strength training.

I started strength training with my primary goal of not becoming a feeble old man. I had asked about any holes in my program with that goal in mind on some weightlifter's forum and a LOT of the responses told me to start working on mobility. I haven't found a routine that works for me as yet (and I'm procrastinating forming the habit) but I have tried Defranco's agile 8 [PDF] and this 10-minute yoga routine.

I didn't feel like I was stretching enough with the Defranco routine (though I did feel a lot looser) and I just couldn't do the yoga comfortably (as much as stretching can be considered comfortable) so I'm still working on a whole body (or at least most of it) stretching routine but you should give either or both of those a shot to see if one of them really works for you.
posted by VTX at 6:25 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

My mom took up walking around the time she turned 50, and we haven't seen her since! Seriously though, she started going on walks about 25 years ago, and now she's in her mid-70s and can easily go ten miles in a day; she's thinking about doing a half marathon.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:51 AM on March 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: what's the optimal approach to exercise if my goals are to be strong and fit for the rest of my days, have a body that is comfortable to move?

There are lots of optimal approaches. Ross Enamait posts a lot of old gymnasts, old calisthenics aficionados, old lifters, and old bodybuilders in his age-related blog entries.

My favored optimal approach is careful strength work, yoga or flexibility work, careful cardio any way you want to get it, plus plenty of new activities (hiking new places, trying new sports) to stay fresh and have fun.

do weightlifters and personal trainers live long, healthy lives?

Yes. Strength is a major indicator of both longevity and quality of life. A good strength program will reinforce essential movements that become difficult for the elderly like getting up from the floor, standing up from the toilet, picking things up, carrying things, and so on. Deep squats strengthen the knees instead of hurt them. The deadlift protects against back injury.

There are, of course, plenty of lifters and personal trainers who train recklessly and injure themselves. Remember not to compare yourself to professional or elite weightlifters or bodybuilders, either, since training for the very top level of most sports is not optimal for health. But if you train carefully there's no reason to shun heavy weights as you age.
posted by daveliepmann at 7:04 AM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think alignment has a huge part to do with it - if you have an injury or notice pain or discomfort, visit a physical therapist to make sure your muscles are balanced and are keeping your joints in alignment. My physical therapist said that the professional athletes he treats have bodies that naturally stay in alignment very well and when something is out of alignment things break down. As soon as he's able to help them get balanced, the whole body pops back into alignment without much coaching from him. He said this kind of tendency towards optimum alignment is markedly different in professional athletes than the average person. That just stuck with me, as though natural athletes' bodies are highly tuned BMWs whereas the rest of us drive a Kia or Ford Focus.

The people I've seen stay mobile were either dancers (I haven't known any serious ballerinas but more than the average joe ballroom / ballet dancer) or just generally active people who didn't let small injuries or perceived weakness get in their way. People in their 80s who still carry their own groceries and take the stairs kind of thing. Don't discount the mental component here. If you think you're weak or are afraid of the chance of pain, you will reduce your activity until it's not as stressful, which leads you to reduced ability. Then if something else happens, you further reduce and then it's a downward mental progression until you can't do much because you think you can't do much.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:16 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

My grandmother was active but not formally so as a younger person, mostly walking, swimming, gardening. In retirement she took up aerobics, and at that time it was unusual that an "older" person should do so. She was slower, but had no real mobility limitations when she died in her mid 80s.

My personal guess (I doubt there's formal research on this) is that any form of exercise is good. Of course, some types of intense exercise does tend to blow out certain joints (running/knees).
posted by latkes at 7:17 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Think about adding a bit of yoga or Tai Chi in your mix for balance and flexibility and walking, biking, or hiking for cardio, preferably outdoors, if you live in a good area for those sports.

I'm in my late sixties, and the only injuries I've suffered since my exercise life began in my mid-thirties were a severe tennis elbow and one torn lateral ligament, both of which healed themselves and were due to overuse. Walking, biking, hiking, moderate weight lifting, and yoga have not caused any injuries so far. Most of my friends who run or used to run started having knee problems in their fifties. My former tennis partners began to have knee and hip problems beginning in their sixties. None of them was ever overweight.

Due to the last two severe winters, I joined a gym for the winter months for spin classes and using the cycling machine. I find going to the gym very boring. I measure spinning class and biking on the machine in dog years compared with cycling outdoors, where the time flies by and I don't want to go home. Walking outdoors whether in a city, suburb, or the country seems far more restorative and less punishing on the body, it seems to me, than walking a treadmill. My husband and I have always chosen to live where it was easier to walk than take a car. That's something to consider in moves you may have ahead of you--choosing a place where an outdoor physical lifestyle is accessible on a daily basis so that you don't have to do repetitive, possibly injurious, exercise in a gym all the time. (I do moderate weights and yoga at home, not at the gym or a studio.)

At the gym and the yoga classes I went to for a time, I've been struck by the number of injuries the young, fit instructors have suffered, probably from exercising so much all day long. As a side note, I never heard about virgin, Paleo, gluten-free diets until I joined a gym, and these are mainly younger people talking about these restrictive diets. Most active people my own age eat healthy diets that don't have labels--just good, fresh food prepared at home with occasional "unhealthy" forays involving ice cream, fresh corn, and chocolate. So moderation and diversity in all things physical and culinary seems like a good goal for long term flexibility and health.
posted by Elsie at 7:54 AM on March 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

Well, strength training isn't necessarily the same as being a weightlifter. Anyhow, this recent essay on Medium talks about exercise in a straightforward way. It's mostly about dispelling myths told to women particularly, but the advice applies to all.
posted by O9scar at 7:58 AM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't think this has been touched upon significantly yet, but avoiding fractures and joint replacements is a great way to stay ambulatory as long as possible. Weight bearing exercise has been shown to increase bone density and lower the risk of osteoporosis and fracture in older adults. Whether it keeps you limber or not (my personal prescription is weight lifting combined with a stretching routine and/or yoga), there is evidence that strength training will protect you against the most common way that older adults lose mobility, which is fractures.
posted by telegraph at 8:11 AM on March 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

I am by no means a fitness expert or excellent example of fitness, but look into bodyweight fitness. Strength and mobility.
posted by pravit at 8:20 AM on March 2, 2015

The people I've known who have stayed the most mobile and active into their 70s, 80s and 90s are the ones who have a passion that keeps them moderately active, several days a week, and that naturally incorporates a variety of movements. Sometimes that may be an actual sport, like martial arts or skiing or swimming, but sometimes its a non-sport activity that just requires you to get up off your butt and get physical, like gardening or birdwatching or working on cars. It's not so much what you can do today, but what you're able to keep doing for the next 50 years.
posted by drlith at 8:53 AM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Anecdata: due to soft tissue injuries, I can't lift heavy-heavy. My physiotherapist said this is ok, and that bodyweight and/or light resistance would be enough to maintain and protect MSK function; she herself (a formerly competitive athlete) doesn't use more than 20 lbs per dumbbell.

Most people who use their bodies professionally (and a lot of recreational athletes) run into wear and tear issues and accumulate injuries over time. I agree that using moderation and variety is a good strategy from a risk management POV. Except for walking; most people in reasonably fair condition can walk for ages without any issues.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:02 AM on March 2, 2015

Yoga? Pilates? Aqua-weights? Be gentle on your aches and pains, and be sure you let them recover instead of causing damage by pushing too far.
posted by discopolo at 9:07 AM on March 2, 2015

I also recommend getting massages. I know people think they're frivolous but you have to take care of your body and give it actual TLC if you expect it to cooperate with getting stronger and staying limber.
posted by discopolo at 9:09 AM on March 2, 2015

1. Yoga +1 +1 +1. It is essential for flexibility and great for strength too.

2. Some martial arts can be very beneficial to mobility (jiu jitsu, judo, kung fu [southern styles]...; however stay away from things with lots of high spinning kicks, like tae kwon do and some forms of karate. Over time your knees will not like that.)

3. Dancing! Mobility and limberness out the wazoo there.

4. Short distance jogging/running. Some people develop lots of arthritis issues from endurance running later in life. Lots of repetitive pounding on the joints there.

5. Strength training with low weights/body weight using higher rep counts and emphasizing form and slower, controlled motions.

6. Massages and routine meditation. Keeping excess tension out of the body helps maintain your flexibility and removes unnecessary strain on your joints and muscles.

7. Rock Climbing! It is a full body workout. The techniques in rock climbing use the entire range of motion in controlled ways when done correctly. I have seen excellently fit climbers of all ages in the rock gym that move wonderfully.

Regarding strength training and joint problems: You are exactly right to notice that it can lead to lots of wear and tear on knees, shoulders, elbows, etc; especially in the manner that is commonly taught and practiced today. I have noticed a little bit of joint deterioration from my power-lifting days from ages 15-25. Crossfit is the epitome of this trend and is insanity for anyone who values their joint tissues. There is a reason not a single Olympic training regimen in the world has adopted this approach. Using lower weights and excellent/controlled form, you can get the same strength gains and results as power-lifting. You don't have to cut lifting completely out of your routine, but as long as you remove the momentum and high weights from your practice, you'll be working with your body and not against it.
posted by incolorinred at 9:51 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

In youth, I did gymnastics and was crazy limber (just shy of being like a circus contortionist). A lengthy health crisis cost me a lot of my overall mobility and I was bedridden for a time and largely housebound for a long time. As part of my recovery, I have been doing a lot of walking , plus eating super healthy. My flexibility is probably never again going to be like it once was, by I am gradually losing the stiffness and "God, I feel like a decrepit octogenarian" vibe.

So I am a big fan of walking. Also, just try to stay healthy and eat healthy. I think you are making a mistake to focus overly much on which kind of exercise. As long as you do some kind of exercise and also put the right foods into your body, you should be okay.

Keep in mind that when you increase your level of exercise, you are also increasing the amount of nutrients you burn up. It's possible that your knees are creaking because you are burning stuff up and not replacing it. Serious athletes need to eat "super foods" or take supplements or whatever so they can replace the stuff they burn up while active. If you don't do that, you aren't getting the optimal result here.
posted by Michele in California at 10:46 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, if you can't afford professional massage, you can use a foam roller. Or a stick. (Or a regular stick - I have used just a wooden dowel with some massage oil, and that works too.)

(And here is some reasonable advice on lifting over 40 and choosing risk-minimal exercises.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:24 PM on March 2, 2015

My lovely neighbour died last year at 92. He'd been teaching Tai Chi for 30 years perhaps and doing it for 40 or more. That's a data point of one but he was one handsome, youthful data point until the end. Have I started Tai Chi? Nope. Perhaps some day ...
posted by Bella Donna at 1:49 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

People I know in this age range practice the following: hiking, yoga, choral singing/conducting, and the jitterbug. Not all at once, but I wouldn't put it past some of them! Also, these are all intensely social pasttimes for them, and things that are central to their identity. Since you're asking what to do now so that at 90, you feel good and enjoy health, it's important not to ignore the social component.

I suspect diet and genetics are also a huge part of this. What are the age-related problems that plague your family (diabetes, heart disease)? Can you head any of these off by eating differently now?
posted by katya.lysander at 4:56 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I worked at a YMCA that happened to have a LOT of older folks. I talked to dozens, and observed hundreds. I would say some combination of yoga, swimming, and walking is very sustainable. This would give you strength, flexibility,and balance, and cardio. Throw in 30 unweighted squats daily and you are good til 90, assuming your luck holds up in other ways.
posted by jcworth at 7:54 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

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