How to avoid becoming frail before your time
Regular running is typically the most popular mode of exercise as people transition away from the gym, their youth, into looking after a family, or during a pandemic. Running is spectacularly better than doing nothing, but even frequent running doesn't maintain muscle strength as we age.
We need to do something extra.
A study of habitual runners (2014) who used endurance exercise as their primary mode of exercise caught my attention because I run daily (5km).
Daily running isn't a prescription for everybody since it induces bone and muscular fatigue, especially my the age (72). I've developed ways of remaining injury-free and sufficiently rested and recovered, and I can still maintain a decent pace of around 5:30/km.
Recently, I've had to learn to run with a mask, which I'm adjusting to well.
Active runners not protected against loss of leg strength
What the study found was that despite running regularly men and women in their late fifties lost a staggering 5% per year of their knee extension strength. That is, when pulling their lower leg forward against resistance, they weakened 5% each year (over the 5-year study period). That's a huge decline of strength.
This loss of strength occurred in both men and women.
Their ability to pull their lower leg backwards (knee flexion) against resistance declined by 3.6% each year of the study. That may be because running requires more power from knee flexion than extension, and therefore flexion reduces the rate of decline in strength.
A healthy BMI? Maybe not ...
As an aside, the study recorded no change in body mass during the 5 years.
Steady weight is typical of active older men and women, but body composition tells a different story. Despite the BMI staying the same, and "healthy", the percentage of muscle declines and the percentage of fat increases. That change needs to be reversed.
Resistance exercise is needed
Just to recount - because it is essential to absorb this fact - even among active older adults, there is evidence that aerobic activity does not mitigate the loss of muscle strength with aging.
Luckily, the remedy for rebuilding leg muscles also rebalances body composition back towards more muscle mass.
This remedy is resistance exercise. Resistance training should be an integral component of a fitness program, since running alone is not sufficient to prevent the loss of muscle strength.
Cardio helps prevent CVD but not falls
In a nutshell, regular running is a great way to decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases in general. However, as we age, loss of lean muscle mass and loss of muscle strength chime in to moderate the protective benefits of cardio-dominant exercise.
In addition, loss of skeletal muscle is positively associated with all-cause mortality and an increased risk of loss of balance and falls. Falls are the most common cause of ER admission for people over 65 (in the US and Australia, for example). Falls that result in major fractures are typically associated with premature death - on average 5 years earlier than otherwise.
For the reasons above, active athletic adults are wise, and perfectly suited, to augment their running with regular strength training. The goal is to reduce the onset of frailty and to maintain active mobility.
The particular method not found to matter
A meta-analysis (2010) examining the effects of resistance training on muscle strength reported that among 47 studies including 1079 men and women >50 years old that muscle strength increased by 24% to 33% with upper and lower body exercises.
Here's the kicker. The evidence from research is that improvements in muscle function in older adults are possible using a host of training protocols at faster or slower movement velocities. This finding tells us that you have a high degree of freedom in developing your preferred style of improving your muscular fitness.
The main thing is that you do it, regularly, and that it is safe strength training.
I'll tell you what I do, but before I do that let's talk about how to build some of this into a running regime. I'm assuming that you are reading this because you are a runner, like me.
Add these variations to your runs
Intermittent exercise limits bone fatigue and downhill exercises increase ground impact forces and involve eccentric muscle contractions, which are particularly effective in building bone mass. Therefore, add these to your runs:
Spread these out through your running days, and you're going to hang on to your muscle strength for a low time.
Of course, you can add in explosive hill sprints and stair sprints - these will hold up your strength and improve your running stamina. That's what I do.
What I do, with the gyms now closed ...
Here's what else I do to maintain strength (now that our gyms are closed) - some of these ideas may also work for you:
I'm hopeful that by adding in these types of resistance exercises that I will maintain a healthy muscle mass and muscle strength into a ripe old age. I hope that you can too.
Use your mental strength to build back muscular strength
If you now mainly run, which is great, take note of the research and add strength training to your routine. The worst thing that can happen to you when you are "endurance fit" but frail in bone and muscular strength is that you fall.
That can ruin your life.
Use your mental strength and consistency to build back your muscular strength. Your family will thank you.
> More posts to help you with EXERCISES
> More posts to help you with DIABETES
> If you are a @MEDIUM reader my publication Body Age Buster has hundreds of categorised posts which I have written especially for men and women over 50
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or another qualified clinician. Disclaimer.
Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter