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Understanding Your Body and the Aging Process

It's the very first morning after you've turned 50, you open your eyes and feel the dawn of a new era descend on you. There's an element of excitement as you enter a new phase. But then, as you swing your legs out of bed and get ready to start the day, you wonder, "what now?" What are other 50+ers doing on the first day? And that's the clincher, isn't it? If you were, say, 30 years younger, you might have thrown yourself out of bed, dragged your running shoes on, and hit the sidewalk for some fresh air and a bit of a workout, but it's been so long since you've done that, that it seems almost unnatural.


A woman over 50 strength training
Understanding your body and the aging process.
Table of Contents:

Designed for Lifelong Movement

Before you head out to buy a set of knitting needles and a ball of wool (or, for the guys, a wood carving set), we'd like to share a secret with you; YOU WERE BORN TO MOVE. In a study of the Hadza people (Tanzania), researchers found that they have excellent cardiovascular health. In short, the study found that humans are not well suited to the screen-focused and inactive lifestyles that has sadly become the norm in western society. Most people struggle to hit the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate cardiovascular exercise for heart health. That said, the Hadza people (of all ages and regardless of season) participate in more than two hours of moderate to high-intensity exercise per day. This seems to be why they enjoy such exemplary heart heath.


From this, we can deduce that we are designed to move a lot more than we do. But now, we have adapted to our sedentary lifestyle and barely move at all. Cue the heart conditions. Of course, this isn't just about old age – humans as a whole are primed from a young age (thanks to society) to spend more time sitting down behind a screen than they do moving around or exercising outside. It's just the way it is.


So now you know, you're designed to move, but you haven't been moving for quite some time. What now? Just because you've got out of the habit of moving, flexing, and stretching at a higher speed than walking pace, it doesn't mean you're doomed to be achy, stiff, and inflexible forever. It simply means you have to get back into the habit. Being designed for movement means that you can and will become flexible and fit again if you're willing to be consistent about it. If you played sports or indulged in exercise in your youth, you might remember that it didn't come naturally then either. You had to work on your fitness, flexibility, and skill – and it's the same now that you're older.


Your muscles may have forgotten what it feels like to move and stretch the way they used to, but if you put in a little bit of work every day or even every week, you will notice how quickly they (your muscles, that is) are willing to learn new things and even excel at them.


The Downsides of Aging

While we are designed for movement, it's good to be aware of the result of aging. Applying the Ostrich method and simply avoiding the uncomfortable truth about aging won't help you. We have found that being aware of the "side effects" of aging and applying a few home remedies (in the form of exercise and strength training) has served us very well in the past few years. And we have seen it work for others too. In the spirit of full disclosure, aging doesn't discriminate – it comes for us all. And unfortunately, it's one of those visitors that brings a few unwelcome guests with it. We're talking about lack of flexibility, decreased energy, reduced strength, increased risk of injury, stiffness, aches and pains, a sluggish metabolism, and a lack of confidence/self-esteem to boot. Of course, nobody welcomes these guests, but still, they come.


Before you get too glum about the effects of aging, here's the good news! You can do something about it!

A woman over 50 is exercising
You can slow the decline of muscle mass and bone density.

Let's briefly look at each of the most common downsides of aging that you may be experiencing right now. Unfortunately, these are often the very things that hold 50+ers back from rejoining the sport and fitness world. But, in reality, exercise can help you to overcome these issues.


Declining Muscle Mass

One of the biggest unwelcome visitors of old age is declining muscle mass. It doesn't matter if you're male or female; the idea of dwindling muscles is upsetting. That said, muscle mass affects men a little more than it affects women. According to Harvard Medical School your muscles go into decline when you reach 30. In fact, you can lose as much as 3 to 5% of your muscle mass per decade. And when muscle mass declines, other things start to go awry too. For starters, you're at a greater risk of fracturing hip bones, collarbones, legs, arms, and wrists when falling. This is thanks to increased weakness and declining mobility – both nasty side effects of declining muscle mass.


Declining muscle mass is the result of a combination of things happening to and in your body. Firstly, you're less active when you get older (or you have gradually become less active over the years), and then you're also going through hormonal changes as your body ages. No one wants to think about their muscles melting away; if anything, we would prefer that our fat would melt away! While declining muscle mass is a fact of life in old age, you can increase your muscle mass and maintain it by introducing strength training and a protein-rich diet to your daily/weekly routine.


Flexibility Declines

Do you remember being able to sit cross-legged on the floor and then quickly stand up without crawling around to a nearby furniture item for help or clinging to someone else to get you back up on your feet? Okay, perhaps it's not that dramatic yet, but it can become that bad if you neglect your physical fitness for much longer. Inactivity and lack of stretching are the top reasons for becoming inflexible, and the good news is that it's not only a problem that plagues older people (yay!). People in their 30s living a sedentary life will struggle to stretch, bend, or even touch their toes if they have never done a stitch of exercise, so there's no reason to feel alone in this.


As you age, your body starts to lose small amounts of flexibility along the way steadily. Some reasons for this include loss of water in the tissues and spine (a natural part of aging), stiff joints, and loss of muscle elasticity. When you're not feeling very flexible, you may find yourself decreasing your physical activities because you feel like you "can't do it." You may sit out on the sidelines while friends play a friendly round of tennis or even avoid climbing the stairs unless you have to (we've all been there – elevators are such a blessing!). Unfortunately, this will only lead to a bigger problem. The human body is all about "use it or lose it." If you don't stretch and use your muscles often, those types of movements will be considered unnecessary, and your body forgets all about them. Before you know it, your muscles feel weak and stiff at the mere thought of specific movements or exercises.


One day when your kids send you a package for your birthday, and the shipping company dumps it on your doorstep, you may experience all manner of aches, pains, and strains, just from bending down and picking it up. And in real-life terms, you may find yourself saying, "no, grandma can't pick you up today" or "sorry, grandpa can't run up the stairs with you" to your grandchildren a little more often than you'd like to.


Inflexibility can also lead to other uncomfortable issues over and above aches, pains, and disappointing your grandkids. These include walking slowly (or shuffling), only being able to take short steps/strides, increased fall risk (you're a little more unstable when the muscles are weak), and pesky back pain.


This all seems a little bleak, but the good news (again) is that you can improve and maintain a healthy level of flexibility with regular strength training and stretching. Of course, strength training isn't a magic bullet. A certain level of flexibility loss with age is unavoidable, but you can slow down the effects with the right approach and ensure you're still striding and skipping along well past the point of 50!


Studies have proven that strength training can be pretty miraculous when it comes to building muscle mass and increasing flexibility. For instance, building strength in the front hip muscles will promote steady walking speed and keep those strides lengthy and confident. You will also experience improved balance thanks to those stronger muscles pulling you firmly onto your feet. Thank goodness, right?


Achy Joints & Arthritis

Most people accept joint pain and arthritis as some sort of right of passage when aging, but the truth is that making healthy changes early on can help you thwart the severity of this part of the aging process. Rheumatologists may even tell you that while joint pains are more common in older folk, they are not guaranteed facts of life. You don't have to be that sore and achy. You can live a relatively pain-free life even after 50! Let's talk about the types of arthritis, as this can help you understand how making changes can stave off those aches and pains waiting to settle into your joints.


The first type we would like to focus on is OA, otherwise known as Osteoarthritis. This is first up on the list because it is the most common type of arthritis. It results from wear and tear, meaning you have repeated the same movement over and over. Now your joints are getting a bit of revenge. This can also happen if you start using joints too soon after an injury. In this type of arthritis, the cartilage cushioning bones in joints wear down, leaving your bones rubbing on each other. Ouch! Osteoarthritis usually shows up in areas of the body you use most often. Think neck, lower back, knees, shoulders, toes, and the base of the thumb.


The second type of arthritis is Rheumatoid arthritis or RA. This is not the same as OA because it's an inflammatory condition. It rouses your immune system into action, but not in a good way. Instead, it confuses the immune system, inspiring it to attack the tissue lining your joints. As a result, you will have sore, stiff, and swollen joints if you are suffering from Rheumatoid arthritis. In addition to this, the condition comes with nasty side effects (just as nasty as joint pain), including fatigue, poor appetite, and fever. Remember we mentioned that making some wise changes could reverse and relieve joint pain and arthritis symptoms? Well, it's true.


Here are four ways (possibly five) that you can reduce joint pain right now:


1. Strength training

Resistance exercises and forms of weight training build muscles that support your joints. Low impact exercises (swimming, cycling, walking) can also help strengthen supporting muscles and ligaments around joints. According to Harvard Medical School weight training is an essential part of easing pain, stiffness, and swelling.


2. Maintain a healthy weight.

Being overweight puts excess pressure on your joints, making you more prone to joint pain.


3. Watch what you eat.

Some foods spur swelling, pain, and inflammation in the body, and other foods have anti-inflammatory effects. Eating more whole foods (by avoiding those all-too-convenient ready-made meals) is a great way to "eat right" and save your joints from unnecessary aches and pains.


4. Develop a healthy sleep cycle.

We all know that sleep plays a vital role in rest and repair. If you're in pain and you have a restless night, the pain seems worse the next day. According to the Arthritis Foundation, getting enough sleep is a critical element in minimizing arthritis pain. And of course, we believe the Arthritis Foundation knows what they're talking about.


(5). If you smoke, quit.

Studies have proven that smoking can worsen both OA and RA pain.


Decreased Range of Motion

Before we talk about the decreased range of motion, let's talk about what range of motion is. It's not just a catchphrase in the fitness world. Range of motion is defined as the full movement potential of a joint. Small children pop up and down between a kneeling and standing position quickly and without a care in the world. This is because their youthful little knees are enjoying a beautiful thing: full range of motion. When you try it out, it almost seems as if your knee goes so far and then decides, "na-uh." And there you are, midair, somewhere between the ground and standing position, trying to lean into a kneeling position awkwardly.


Welcome to decreased range of motion. If you speak with a medical doctor, you will learn that joint range of motion references two things: 1) the distance your joints can move, and 2) the direction your joints can move in. Many things can lead to a limited range of motion in old age, such as muscle stiffness, pain, inflammation, swelling, and fractures. You may be noticing a pattern here; inactivity can be at play! It can also result from medical conditions such as arthritis, cerebral palsy, Leg-Calve-Perthes disease, and sepsis of the hips and other joints.


Now for the good news! You can help to delay the onset by regularly practicing exercises based on a range of motion. The correct exercises can also help you rectify and improve your range of motion if you are already suffering the side effects of a decreased range of motion.


Summary

Now that you have a basic overview and understanding of the aging process that tackles you in your 50's, we think you’re probably somewhat inspired to move!


*Check out this link to an article we published on starting a daily 5-minute stretch routine and go for it today!


STAY MOVING, YOU WERE BORN FOR IT!


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