Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Staying athletic as you age

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I’m continually amazed by the differences in people’s abilities as they get older. I have a bird’s eye view of this phenomenon because I work with people of all ages – from 15 to 86 years old.  Some adults have the agility and grace of one who is decades younger, as they spring up from a floor exercise, and deftly stay balanced on one foot. Others have a specific procedure to get up from the floor, and do it slowly and cautiously. Some people in their seventies are still opening their own jars and hoisting their own luggage and groceries. Some in their fifties need to be careful and delegate the heavy lifting tasks. Regardless of your assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses, there are specific things you can do to remain flexible, strong and able.

Eric Cressey is a renown strength and conditioning coach and below are a few of his tips on how to stay athletic as you age. I will say up front, however, that at age 34 he has a limited perspective on what it means to get older! Speaking from my own experience and from other athletes in their 60s and beyond, here are some useful exercises and techniques to retain some essential, and oft ignored aspects of fitness.

1. Flexibility- When you lose it, you feel it. 

Without a doubt, the most common reason folks feel less athletic is that they aren’t able to get into the positions and postures they want. Just like flossing your teeth, it’s much easier to do a little work to preserve health and mobility than it is to lose it through injury or lack of conditioning and have to work to get it back. Some foam rolling and five minutes of mobility work per day goes a long way in keeping you athletic. See this foam rolling video for tips on best practices  – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khC5J1lkC7s

2. Do a small amount of pre-training plyometrics (rapid stretching and contracting muscles) like jumping or dancing.

The stretch-shortening cycle (a reaction in our muscles to quick stretching and contracting)  creates an elastic effect that supplements our normal strength. This enhances our power, which is the ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible.  As we get older, we see a substantial change in our ability to use this aspect of athleticism. An example is how much more difficult it is to sprint  as we age,  even if you were a track star in school.  Jumping allows us to use our muscles in a more challenging way. It helps maintain the health of our tendons by exposing them to more rigorous forces than we may encounter in every day life.  This can come in handy when trying to catch a plane or bus!  Plyometric work like side shuffles, skipping, grapevine moves and backwards jogging or pedaling can help preserve the ability to respond quickly. The best bet is to include these drills right after the warm-up and before weight lifting.

3. Emphasize full-body exercises that teach transfer of force from the lower body to the upper body.

Rotational exercises like cross body arm lifts, walking lunges with weights, balancing while using bands around ankles and dance moves that involve using arms and legs at once are great for accomplishing this task.

4. Emphasize ground-to-standing transitions.

Turkish get-ups are the most well-known example of this challenge but every day activities can also do the trick.  As mentioned before, get used to going from the ground to standing using your own body strength, preferably without the help of chairs, the wall or other props. Having a pet, children and grandchildren that you play with, and picking them up are all good ways to transfer force from lower to upper body and go from ground to standing.

5. Get strong in single-leg postures.

Squats and dead lifts will get you strong,  but don’t forget that balance can be best maintained by being in a single-leg stance. Being athletic requires that you be comfortable on one leg as well as two. Lunges, step-ups, and split squats all deserve a place in just about everyone’s training programs.

6. Use core exercises that force you to resist both extension and rotation.

Efficient movement is all about moving in the right places. The lower back has minimal rotational ability; prioritize movement at the hips and upper back. With that in mind, your core work should be focused on resisting both extension (too much lower back arching) and rotation.

7. Train outside the sagittal plane.

It’s important to master the sagittal (straight ahead) plane first with your training programs, but once you get proficient there, it’s useful to progress to a bit of strength work in the frontal plane, meaning side-to-side movements.  Lateral lunge variations, and many dance moves are excellent for this purpose. Rotational moves, like twisting, are also essential to respond to unexpected demands.

8.  Include some form of weight training.

I speak to many people who say “I walk to keep in shape”.  Walking is important for general endurance, flexibility, and cardio work if you keep a fast pace or do intervals, but you must include weight training as part of your weekly regimen. As we get older, we lose an average of 5-7% of muscle mass a decade, UNLESS you challenge your muscles by putting the right amount of stress on them. Dumbbells, body weight training, thera-tubing and using bands all qualify as weight training when used correctly.

9.  Be fast on your concentric.

If you want to stay fast, you need to keep a fast element in your strength training program. You can include things like Olympic lifts, jump squats, and kettlebell swings. One easy way to do this is to lift weights using a faster tempo to keep your responses quick.

10. Play or cross-train.

In a given week, I do zumba, lead strength and conditioning classes, cycle, do yoga and drumming with Poundfit.  The old adage, “Variety is the spice of life” applies to fitness and athleticism. Playing can take many forms, and by now, you know what your favorites are. Skating, skiing, cycling, playing catch, golfing and swimming are some common examples of ways to cross train and keep  your activities enjoyable .

Go to http://ericcressey.com/10-ways-to-remain-athletic for more details and some exercise descriptions.

So, there you have it.  You may need to incorporate some of these new activities slowly; but be sure to give them a shot to reach and maintain your maximum fitness level !

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