Exercise: slower is safer

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2012

Regular physical activity is a must for everyone, including the oldest among us. When researchers studied a group of residents at a retirement facility whose average age was 90.2 years they found that within a few weeks those formerly sedentary seniors were able to double or triple their strength. If you have visited a fitness center recently you probably noticed that gray hair is no longer a rarity there. Just recently a thirty-something couple stood spellbound, watching a 76-year old do 100 push-ups and 20 chin-ups, hardly pausing for breath between the two exercises.

No one doubts that athletic performance declines as the years pass but strength diminishes very slowly over the decades as long as moderately intense, daily physical activity is undiminished.

There is a caveat in all this, however. Time does take a toll and one of the outward signs of this is wrinkling of the skin. Connective tissue is the fabric that holds us together. It is a kind of protein scaffolding that binds skin cells together and muscle bundles aligned, cushions our joints, forms ligaments that hold bones in place and forms tendons, those bridges between muscle and bone. Skin wrinkles form because connective tissue loses its elasticity as oxidative stress increases. Oxidative stress occurs when sunlight, pollution, smoking and ordinary life processes such as energy production and inflammation disrupt atoms and molecules that make up protein, DNA and other constituents of cells. We literally dry out as we become older and water content decreases. As infants, 80 percent of our body consists of water; by the time we reach retirement age that has dropped to a little more than 60 percent.

As connective tissue ages it loses both elasticity and strength, demanding that we change our exercise habits on the way to senior status. The ligaments that stabilize the knee and the tendon that holds our calf muscle to our heel bone can't take the punishment that they once did. In order to avoid injury it becomes necessary to be a little more careful on the basketball court, forgoing the bouncing leaps that can stretch and rupture an Achilles tendon. When doing resistance exercises using weights or machines, lighten the load and slow down the movement. That will stress the muscle enough to keep it toned and strong but reduce the chance of a ruptured quadriceps or biceps tendon or a rotator cuff injury.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.