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Why to Train Like an Athlete – Regardless of Your Age

By Alexander VanHouten, Master Trainer & Life Time Education Specialist

Let’s face it. We’re all fighting the clock.

Our bodies are powerfully made. Time, however, is always chipping away at our machinery. And inevitably – barring some strange advancement in technology – that continuum of entropy will eventually win out. Sobering, but true.

I don’t know about you, but I’m on a mission to keep my body as freely young as possible so that time’s effects don’t hinder me from doing the activities I love to do. Living a long time on this earth is one thing, but surviving each day with no real sense of physical actualization of my potential doesn’t feel like a fulfilling choice.

Measure of Longevity

According to the World Health Organization, the number one cause of death in the world is ischaemic heart disease.[i] In other words, if you want to live longer than you otherwise would, keep your heart in good condition with proper nutrition and cardiovascular exercise. You can measure your heart health annually at the cardiologist and find out how you’re holding up. Pretty simple equation.

But what happens when, in the pursuit of longevity, you’d like to be actualized as well – to know and live through your full physical potential at each stage of life? What if you want to maintain biomechanic functionality? Maybe you’d like to compete in athletic events still. Perhaps you’d like to be independent around the house. What if you’d like to play with the grandkids on the playground?

What measures do we have that tell us how we’re faring in this realm of fitness?

Measures of Youth?

Enter two important, quantifiable measures: Power and Bone Mineral Density.

These two measures, it turns out, can be the most predictive measures of serious loss of functionality or injury later in life. And, thankfully, they are not set in stone. Just like we can take good care of our hearts and live longer, we can train Power and BMD to ensure that we live fully as well.

Power

By definition, power is your muscles’ ability to produce maximum force in a short period of time. In physics, it’s defined as “work” (force times distance) divided by time. In layman’s terms, power is the ability for your muscles to activate in such a way as to do things like jump, throw, catch, walk and climb stairs rapidly, and to change directions quickly.

This ability decreases as the body ages. Without training, it’s natural to experience an exponential drop in the cross-sectional area of muscle sarcomeres over the years.[ii] Type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibers are the most affected. [iii]

What happens when your fast twitch muscle fibers shrink exponentially? You stop twitching fast…that is, you lose the ability to produce force quickly in your muscle tissue. The resulting diminished power tends to correlate with a loss of independence later in life.[iv][v]

Think about it. What happens if you trip in the parking lot? (Stuff happens, right?) You react, throw your other foot forward and catch yourself (power and coordination). What if you miss the catch or don’t react at all? You hurtle toward the pavement.

Something’s going to absorb the impact. Some people throw both hands down in front of them, and their muscles activate quickly enough to absorb the shock (power). Since muscles are quite elastic, these people end up with skinned palms and nothing more.

Others aren’t as conditioned. Both hands go down, but no muscles activate. Bones absorb the shock instead. Unfortunately, they’re not so elastic and will break when under enough duress. Maybe a collarbone takes a hit. Or even worse, the hip breaks.

Such injuries later in life are much harder to recover from and often lead to subsequent injuries as limited activity during recovery accelerates aging of the muscle tissue. In other words, no one wants to live longer if it means spending all that extra time in life recovering from broken bones or other injury.

Bone Mineral Density

By definition, bone mineral density is the measure of how tightly and securely packed with minerals like calcium and phosphorous (measured per square centimeter) your bone tissue is. This measurement is often taken on the hip joint later in life, particularly for women at high risk of osteoporosis.

The higher your bone mineral density is, the less likely your bones are to break when put under strains such as falls or even the forces of everyday life.[vi] If you can keep your bone mineral density high throughout your life, you are significantly less likely to experience life-altering injuries and can enjoy your later years with a similar level of independence and actualization as you enjoyed in your younger decades.

What Athletic Training Can Do

It makes sense that training can affect muscular power, and we will explore that in part 2 of this article series, but did you know that even though bones seem unchanging, they are trainable like muscles?

Strength and athletic training in and of themselves will increase bone mineral density. There is a wealth of research to support this. For example, a 16-week, 30-45 minutes, 3x/week protocol of strength training increased the BMD of the femoral heads (one of the spots you’d shatter if you broke a hip) in untrained males. All factors considered, the gains added up to nearly 5% – a very significant increase in only 4 months![vii]

Another study comparing women ages 55-77 who had osteoporosis found that simple brisk walking coupled with light “gymnastic” movements significantly improved BMD over simply supplementing with calcium without training.[viii]

Even more fascinating is a comparison study among different athletes. The bone mineral densities of strength training females, soccer players and swimmers were compared to see how they measured up to each other.

Only soccer players’ bones were significantly denser than the average adult female. The weight lifting females had the next densest bones, although they were about average among female athletes. And the swimmers? Their bones were significantly LESS DENSE than the average female athlete.[ix]

Think about it. How do muscles respond to exercise? They are strained, torn down, worn out, then after recovery come back stronger, larger, and more powerful. Bones are exactly the same way.

But how do you strain a bone?

High impact, explosive, almost-jarring movements would put the most strain on the skeletal system, since the muscles, tendons and ligaments cannot possibly absorb all of the shock of such movements.

So, which athlete of those three will endure movements like those described above? Watch a soccer player for 5 seconds. Fast moving, switching directions on a dime, sprinting in one direction, falling into another, bashing into other players, all while moving a ball in fast motion with swift kicks. Did I mention these moves occur with all the force of gravity firmly anchoring them to the earth?

All of this impact affects bone tissue and causes it to grow back stronger than before.

And the swimmers? Their movements are fluid, smooth and graceful – in a buoyant environment. Imagine the impact on their skeletal systems. According to this study, swimming – while a great workout in many ways – offers much less support for bone health precisely because there’s so little impact.

What do we do with this information?

In part 2, I’ll discuss power training methodology and highlight modalities in the club that will help you train like an athlete without putting yourself in harm’s way.

In the meantime, embrace play. Go for impact. Mix some soccer or similar athletic activity into your normal weight lifting and swim regimen. If we’re going to live until we’re 100, let’s better actualize (and enjoy) our physical potential by ensuring plenty of life in the years and decades to come!

Are you interested in re-envisioning your workout routine? Talk with a fitness professional, who can offer his/her guidance on a protocol and support that’s appropriate for your fitness level and personal goals.

If you want to learn more about how we design our programs to support fitness and performance using our Core 3 Training™ methodologies,

Download the Core 3 Training Manual.

Thanks for reading. If you learned something new, please share the post on your favorite social media channel.

[i] WHO | The top 10 causes of death. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/

[ii] Frontera, W.R., et al. 2000. Aging of skeletal muscle: A 12-yr longitudinal study. Journal of Applied Physiology, 88 (4), 1321–26.

[iii] Lexell, J., & Downham, D. 1992. What is the effect of ageing on type 2 muscle fibers? Journal of Neurological Sciences, 107 (2), 250–51.

[iv] Bean, J.F., et al. 2002. The relationship between leg power and physical performance in mobility-limited older people. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 50 (3), 461–67.

[v] Foldvari, M., et al. 2000. Association of muscle power with functional status in community-dwelling elderly women. Journal of Gerontology, 55A (4), M192–99.

[vi] Pétursson, Þ. (n.d.). Bone Mineral Density and Fracture Risk Assessment for Patients Undergoing Total Hip Replacement. ECTS.

[vii] A. Menkes, S. Mazel, R. A. Redmond, K. Koffler, C. R. Libanati, C. M. Gundberg, T. M. Zizic, J. M. Hagberg, R. E. Pratley, B. F. Hurley. Journal of Applied Physiology Published 1 May 1993 Vol. 74 no. 5, 2478-2484.

[viii] Jun Iwamoto, Tsuyoshi Takeda, Shoichi Ichimura. Effect of exercise training and detraining on bone mineral density in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. Journal of Orthopaedic Science, 2001, Volume 6, Number 2, Page 128.

[ix] Bellew, James W. PT, EdD; Gehrig, Laura MD, FACOS. A Comparison of Bone Mineral Density in Adolescent Female Swimmers, Soccer Players, and Weight Lifters. Pediatric Physical Therapy: Spring 2006. Volume 18. Issue 1, 19-22.

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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