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Watch your grip!
Joining a "Men's Challenge" obstacle course race last weekend was great fun. I haven’t had such a good excuse to play up to my armpits in mud since I was a kid.
Being me, I was particularly curious about how this group of 50-year olds and I would compare in overall fitness - me being 20 years older. I found two key differences, and one encouraging lesson.
Balance - not as easy as falling off a log
First off - disappointment !! The first obstacle to run over was all about balance. The leading few stepped their way across with ease. I fell off 3 times on my way over, and the followers made their way at various levels of competency
From here there was a pattern. There were two or three of the guys, and myself, who were the ones who pushed ahead. I'll call this group the "front runners".
So despite my regular and consistent attention to balance training at gym, at every session, I was no longer as competent as the front runners. That's important to know. Imagine how much worse it would be if I did not do regular consistent balance training.
Falls cut older people's life short - by 5 years on average. It turns out, from this observation, that we really need to give it focused attention and to keep at it. Here's what I currently do for balance training, and I do most of this every time I go to the gym:
In addition, many of my other regular exercises require managing asymmetric weighted movements, which forces the brain to coordinate balance. Unfortunately all these exercises didn’t get me to the front compared to the best 50 year olds, which shows how much balance work we need.
My gripe with my grip
The next thing I noticed was grip strength - or comparative lack of it. The front runners went across the hanging ropes and the rock climbing walls with comparative ease, leaving me floundering. I wasn't able to complete these obstacles. Lack of grip strength was far more pronounced than the deterioration of balance.
Perhaps you would not think so, but grip strength is an important indicator of longevity. Research indicates that grip strength in midlife can predict physical disability in senior years. Another recent study found that "each 11-pound decrease in grip strength over the course of the study was linked to a 16% higher risk of dying from any cause, a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, a 9% higher risk of stroke, and a 7% higher risk of heart attack".
What's going on here? How can grip strength correlate with these things? It seems grip strength is highly correlated with overall skeletal muscle mass and strength. If that muscle has atrophied then that leads to health problems associated with wasting muscle as we age. (You can read my answer here on Quora which explains this in more detail.)
So the answer is not to focus on developing your grip strength, but to do the necessary strength and resistance training to rebuild your muscle mass. I do that. I also so some grip strength exercises such as the Farmer's Carry with heavy kettlebells, and simply hanging for as long as a I can off the pull-up rack.
Now for the good news - fitness!
As far as general fitness goes it was no problem keeping up with the front runners. In terms of running, climbing generally, pushing through mud, climbing over solid obstacles, crawling under nets and barbed wire - all no problem.
So, as an older person, you can feel confident that if you put in the work that your overall fitness will build to, and remain at, a high level compared to 50 year olds. That requires interval training and stamina exercises, in addition to endurance and strength. I was pleased to see how effective that effort can be. In reality, it shows that you can make quite an impact on lowering your bodyage when you have a good consistent program.
Live longer better
Keep up your fitness efforts, and perhaps give a little more attention to your balance and strength exercises. Your body will thank you. You may never be 50 again, but you will be able to keep up with most of them and live longer better!
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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