Exercising through the ages

Since being on the ‘other’ side of 40 I have been getting asked for comment on the effects and importance of different forms of exercise as we age.   (I’m taking that as being complementary of expertise rather than an observation that I’m in the process of ageing…!)

Give the frequency of these requests it seemed to make some sense to collate the most common ones together into a blog post  – so here it is, my most frequently asked questions and answers on exercising through the ages:


Exercise is a keystone of mental and physical wellbeing at any age


What do we actually need to know about exercising as we get older – is it more/less important?
Exercise really is important at any age, however, as we get older our every day lives can become gradually less active – more senior jobs tend to be more sedentary, if there are children in our lives they tend to be a little older and require less running around after,  social activities may be more focused around sitting rather than moving, dancing or playing sports.
Whilst a slowing down of the pace of life is not a bad thing at all, and from an emotional wellbeing perspective it is important to embrace the different stages of our lives rather than deny them.  When it comes to moving our bodies it does mean we have to be more intentional and pourposeful about exercise.
The five measurable ‘pillars’ of health (strength, cardiovascular fitness, mobility, body composition, emotional wellbeing) are no more or less important at different life stages, however,  as bodies change with age, its natural abilities to maintain each of them fluctuates, and to maintain an equilibrium throughout life some areas require more of a focus at different stages than others.
What happens to our hormones and bone density that requires a change of tact?
Three important hormones that we should be aware of declining with age are Oestrogen, Human Growth Hormone and Testosterone.  All three play vital roles in multiple aspects of health and all three are ‘anti ageing’ hormones.
The female sex hormone oestrogen regulates bone metabolism – it promotes the activity of cells called osteoblasts, which are responsible for making new bone.  Osteoblast activity allows for the repair and continual remodelling of all of our bones.
Those born in female bodies or with a female endocrine system are subject to cyclical changes in different hormone levels at different life stages. Oestrogen levels peak in mid to late 20s, but have declined by 50% by 50 years of age.  Levels of oestrogen decline most rapidly when those with a female endocrine (hormone) system reach perimenopause, this typically starts between the ages of 40-44.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
No matter our gender every human body is subject to a decline in growth hormone as we age.
Human Growth Hormone is responsible for the growth and reproduction of all our cells.  So as well as quite literally making us grow in our formative years, HGH is also responsible for the turnover of the cells of our skeletal muscles, skin, hair, nails as well as our bones.  Growth hormone is quite often referred to as the ‘holy grail’ of anti ageing.
However, after peaking during puberty and maintaining high levels during our 20s, HGH levels decline by approximately 15% with every decade of adult life from the age of 30 onwards.
The male sex hormone testosterone is not just important for those born in male bodies or with a male endocrine system.  It is present and important in all human bodies – testosterone  is responsible for maintenance and repair of lean tissue, reproductive tissues,  maintaining strength, reducing body fat and improving mood and libido, and it plays this role in people of all genders.  Testosterone also acts directly on those vital osteoblast cells that are responsible for maintaining and repairing skeletal bones.
Testosterone in those born in female bodies or with a female hormonal system peaks around age 20 and then decreases by approx 25% each decade.
A combination of al of these factors contributes to bone loss being observed at a rate of approx 2% per year during and after menopause, and to a phenomena known as sarcopenia (loss of lean tissue) occurring at a rate of 8% each decade from age 30 onwards.  These are two of the primary factors of tangible ageing.
Fortunately there is something each and every one of us can do to help mitigate these changes:  Exercise!
However, when it comes to exercise to improve hormonal health, increase bone density and reduce sarcopenia  – not all exercise is created equally.
(all figures from National Institute of Health  nih.gov)

Axial loading of the skeleton has numerous positive effe its on bine and hormonal health


What should we be looking to implement in our workout routines?
A workout routine at any age should be looking to address each of the five measurable pillars of health:  strength, cardio fitness, mobility, body composition and emotional wellbeing.
However, how we look to achieve balance across all five will change as our bodies change particularly with respect to promoting hormonal health and imrobving bone density.
Exercise that involves axial loading of the skeleton and repetitive impact has been shown not only to reduce osteoporosis and osteopenia, but in many cases even reverse it.
Axial loading of the skeleton means loading it along its length, so carrying or lifting loads – repetitive impact would be any activity that causes repeated stresses to the skeleton, ideally in different directions or planes.
Sports such as netball, hockey, tennis or martial arts like boxing and kickboxing are all great examples of activities that provide repetitive multidirectional impact to the skeleton and so help to create that protective effect.
If we add a competitive element to any of those or similar activities then there are positive correlations between that and improving the profile of both testosterone and oestrogen.
 There is one activity, however, that provides both axial loading, multidirectional impact, that has also been shown to increase all three essential anti ageing hormones growth hormone, oestrogen and testosterone – and that is a progressive strength training program.
There is often a misnomer that higher impact activities and strength earning are the preserve of the young, and that as we age we should look to replace them with more gentle or weight supported activities (such as swimming, reformer, or weight supported cardio equipment like spin bikes or climbing machines),  and whilst all of these activities provide a myriad of benefits to all ages  – they don’t help with the maintenance of hormonal profile and bone density.
 which exercises ?
When it comes to which exercises to incorporate in a strength training workout – you get the most ‘bang for your buck’ focussing on multi joint or ‘compound’ exercises – this allows for us to work more of our body at once.
I also like to pair upper and lower body exercises together in ‘supersets’ or mini circuits to take advantage of the venous shunt phenomena.
However, if we are looking to maximise the axial loading on the skeleton to harvest the greatest benefits to bone and hormone health then we also need to be prioritising what are known as ‘closed chain’ exercises.
Closed chain exercises are those that have both feet (or both hands) in contact with the floor  – so think squat instead of a leg extension, or a press up instead of a dumbbell fly.
Closed chain movements allow us to apply compressive load along the length of skeletal bones – which has been shown too be the most effective way to stimulate osteoblast activity and therefore bone growth and repair.
Open chain movements (think dumbbell curl, hamstring curl or lateral raise) can be great for targeting and shaping specific muscles and body parts – but don’t provide the compressive forces required for bone and hormone health.
For those already active, how can they adapt their routines? And for those who aren’t, what are the small things they can start to do to help? 
If you are already purposefully exercising then you’re already in the top 7 % of the population (Statista) so its important to respect that win! However, the next step is to add a little structure to the habit of moving.
Designing fitness programs is often a case of combining what someone wants with what they need – so if you’re already in the habit of moving, the chances are you have found activities that you enjoy – my suggestion is stick to them – but also to consider what type of activities they are, and whether your program has balance.
A well rounded program that is designed to address all of the age related issues discussed above would need to include:
 2-3 workouts per week focussing on incremental resistance training (weights)
One workout a week that involves repetitive impact such as tennis, boxing, dance or dance cardio – this would also function as a higher intensity  cardio session
one workout a week focussed on mobility and motor control such as reformer, yoga, barre
one or two workouts a week focussed on lower intensity cardio fitness, this could absolutely be on weight supported cardio equipment (bikes, climbers, ellipticals) so long as the higher impact activity has already happened!
If you aren’t already exercising purposefully, then i do think it is important not to let perfection be the enemy of progress and just start.  A less than perfect plan is better than not plan.  Small things someone can do to start incorporating exercise into their routine is to think about consciously replacing some sedentary activities with moving ones – meeting a friend for a catch up our a coffee why not make it a walk instead of a sit down.  Needing to communicate with someone at work then go over and talk to them rather than send an email.
Habit stacking is a great way to consider making exercising part of your routine if it already isn’t –  this means starting with the easy wins and then adding to them as you go.  This could look like finding some activities you enjoy or can be social with – and then looking to add a few different ones to help optimise your routine.
If I could choose just one activity for a client over 40 it would be a full body weight straining workout based around closed chain compound exercises  – it is the free anti ageing wonder drug!
Can a good workout help with perimenopause as well?
Absolutely yes – though i would say it would be more a good workout routine rather than just a good workout.
One good workout and its associated endorphin release can definitely help elevate mood and energy.  However, a good and consistent workout routine with the correct balance of resistance training, movement work and cardio fitness can increase bone health, elevate energy and libido boosting testosterone, increase anti ageing growth hormone and balance mood lifting oestrogen.
What would an ideal 50 plus workout look like? 
Weekly plan:
Monday – high impact activity (tennis, boxing, dance, even steps aerobics if you want a throwback)
Tuesday – Full body strength training focused around multi joint exercises
Wednesday – low impacted low intensity cardio  (walk, cycle, swim or any weight supported cardio machine)
Thursday  – Full body strength training focussed around multi joint exercises
Friday – Rest
Saturday  – Movement based activity (reformer, yoga, barre )
Sunday  –  Outdoor walk
Example beginner full body workout based on closed chain compound movements
A1  Goblet squat  3 x 8
A2 TRX row  3 x 10
B1  Split squat 3 x 6 / side
B2 Hands elevated press up (hands on bench / box) 3 x 8
C1 Hip bridge (heels on bench) 3 x 12
C2 Banded wood chop  3 x 8 / side
2024-03-14T17:21:17+00:00March 14th, 2024|0 Comments

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