To improve performance with age, be dynamic

Cardiorespiratory fitness isn’t enough.

As we age, our functional abilities decline. If you’re over 40 that should be an unwelcome reminder. But knowing why that is and what you can do about it can help you maintain or improve performance, despite the inevitable turning of the pale blue dot.

Our hearts slow down one beat per year, but, more importantly for athletic performance, we lose skeletal muscle size and numbers. In fact, our muscle mass declines up to 3% per year after age 50. These changes cause a decrease in VO2max every year, but the good news is that decrease can be slowed with training. More good news: our exercise economy, or how much energy you need to produce to move a certain speed, doesn’t really change with age. Why not?

Exercise economy is mainly the product of neuromuscular coordination. And despite the loss of structural adaptations in our skeletal muscles with age, our nervous systems have the ability to remain excitable and robust. So training with multiple, dynamic resistance exercises to improve your coordination and economy may give you the most bang for your exercise buck: the muscle fibers you maintain with age can become smarter, and move better.

When we’re young, we combine a rapidly-developing nervous system with highly-adaptable (or “plastic”) muscle cells. It’s one of the reasons kids develop full body fitness so quickly: multiple training stimuli result in comprehensive adaptations. It’s also why your kids should really play as many sports as they can. But we big kids need some variety in our routines as well, to maintain our fitness while developing our overall athleticism.

There’s good data to support it. Dynamic strength training exercises like burpees, kettlebell swinging, and even olympic lifting have been shown to improve endurance performance and movement economy with age, due primarily to those ever-important nervous system adaptations.

But the benefits of dynamic, strength- and agility-building exercises aren’t just limited to performance. Decades of research have identified physical work capacity as an independent predictor of mortality. Simply put, the more you can move, the longer you’ll live.

You can even do this simple sit and rise test yourself: sit on the floor criss-cross-applesauce and then stand back up. The fewer hands, knees and arms you need to get down and back up, the longer you’ll live.

It seems like a silly test, but there’s a real physiological rationale for it. There’s a direct relationship between your sitting and standing ability and the health of your nervous system, muscles, and bones, in addition to your body weight.

So while your VO2max numbers will tell you how much fuel your engine can burn, your ability to win races and live a long time are largely a product of your overall athleticism and capacity to move your muscles.

For the stud-muffin Masters competitors in crossfit, cyclocross, and trail running, you’re probably already getting enough dynamic resistance training. But for the rest of us that means finding the right exercises to mix into our routines. Our vimeo page is full of awesome resources to find the exercises that make sense for you. Pick a few out, do them when you can, and start getting better with age, in triathlons or sit-and-stand-a-thons.

Photo Credit: Jason Cawkwell/Flickr