People like to refer to midlife as "the golden years. "It's when you slowdown a little and have the time to stop and smell the
roses. Unfortunately many individuals start to use this more leisurely period as a prelude to a sedentary lifestyle. Most people
think being able to vegetate is a blessing, but body-builders know this can be the biggest mistake of your life.
Remember the old fable about the tortoise and the hare? The swift hare stopped to relax and the tortoise caught up - and passed
him. This is a good analogy of what can happen to you if you're not playing the iron game. While you're resting by the side of
life's road, old age is slowly catching up with you.
We're all getting older in years, but you don't have to let your body waste away. Most people's bodies get old out of neglect.
You've heard the old saying "use it or lose it." It especially applies to the aging process. The body's efficiency tends to
decline as we age, but if you push yourself hard enough in the gym, you can literally stop the process of aging.
STOKING THE METABOLIC FIRES
No one knows the exact cause of aging, but several bodily changes are known to be associated with it. As you age, you start to
lose fat-free muscle mass, and this is replaced by bodyfat. This change is often the result of people slowing down and not
getting enough exercise. When the muscles are no longer used, they slowly waste away. Since you don't expend much energy in your
leisure time, most of your calories are turned into fat. Furthermore, the favorite pastime for some folks is eating.
Little do we realize that the muscles are the hearths of our metabolic fire. They are capable of burning 60 to 70 percent of our
daily calories through a process called the resting metabolic rate (RMR). As muscle tissue is lost through inactivity, the RMR
decreases also, with the result that fewer calories from food will be burned for the production of energy and more will be stored
as fat. Under normal circumstances we lose up to 3 percent of our RMR each decade unless we choose to do something about it.
Studies are now showing that strength training can preserve muscle mass and the RMR in older individuals. A group of
50-to-65-year-old nonexercising men was put on a regular program of progressive resistance exercise. The program consisted of 14
exercises that worked all major muscle groups. One set of each exercise was performed for 15 repetitions using moderately heavy
weights. The test period comprised three one-hour sessions per week for 16 weeks.
At the end of this program muscle strength had increased by an impressive 40 percent. Although their bodyweights remained the same,
the subjects had lost about four pounds of fat and replaced it with five pounds of muscle. This increase in muscle caused their RMR
to increase by 8 percent. Since a person can lose 3 percent of his RMR per decade, these men essentially turned the clock back on
their RMR by more than 25 years. Their older bodies now had metabolisms similar to those of 25-to-40-year-old individuals.
STRONG MUSCLES KEEP YOU YOUNG
Some people don't have a lot of excess body-fat and don't particularly care about their RMR. So why spend several hours a week
tossing iron around the gym? The reason is that muscles are what provides strength, mobility and quality of life. Being ripped is
no consolation if you don't have the strength to get out of your chair. There's an ugly word to describe this condition: frail.
Consider the fact that muscle mass naturally starts declining at about age 30. The decline begins slowly, but by age 60 muscle mass
has decreased by 20-30 percent. This loss is due to atrophy, and it results from nonuse. It's like having a broken arm in a cast for
several weeks. Can you remember how that arm was smaller and weaker than the other arm when the cast was removed? The individual
muscle fibers had shrunk, but they were still there and could be rejuvenate through exercise, in aging, the fibers not only shrink,
but they also decrease in number by about 24 percent. When this happens, there's nothing left to work with.
Fortunately this loss of muscle fibers does not reach the critical state until late in life. The changes that normally take place
in muscle from early adulthood to middle age appear in the composition of the muscle fiber types. There is a shift in the
proportions of type I and type II muscle fibers. Type II muscle fibers are large and contribute to short bursts of strength, while
the type I are smaller and are used for sustained work. The conversion from predominantly type II to type I muscle fibers is caused
by a lack of exercise that is responsible for the muscle atrophy.
Since the type II muscles give us strength, their loss results in weak muscles. However, as we age, our muscles can become weaker
than can be accounted for by fiber loss alone. Evidently the nerves that connect to muscles and supply the stimulus for contractions
are greatly reduced in aged muscle. Without neural input the strongest muscle just sits and does nothing.
In normal muscles that are actively stimulated to grow by exercise, the nerve connections are constantly remodeling themselves. As
muscle fibers grow larger and require more nerve input, the old nerve connection is severed and this nerve ending dies back. The main
nerve now sends forth many new sprouts that form additional nerve connections with the larger fiber. Studies indicate that in older
muscles where type II fibers are being reduced the nerve endings just die back and become dormant since there is no new muscle fiber
to form connections with. When the nerves go, the game's over for good.
These denervated muscles are fragile and more easily injured than an active muscle. Not only that, but an older muscle will recover
much more slowly than a younger one. Whereas young muscle will recover in a couple of weeks, older muscle may not be completely
recovered after two months.
This lack of recovery is not due to the muscle itself, but rather to the diminished physiological environment that results from poor
nerve connections. You can transplant a piece of healthy young muscle into an older individual, and the new tissue will begin to
atrophy because new nerve connections are not formed. On the other hand, transplant a piece of old muscle into a young person and the
tissue becomes innervated and starts to grow and increase in strength. Apparently old muscle can still be coaxed to grow if you don't
wait till the nerves are no longer able to form new connections.
THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
The great Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon searched the world and never did find the fountain of youth. Perhaps he should have looked
in the gym because it seems that a hefty set of barbells is the best means of preserving eternal youth that one can find. Sure,
we're all getting older in years, but we don't have to get old.
Bodybuilding does seem to be able to turn back the tide of aging. Hitting the iron with a serious attitude will not only help you
keep what you were born with, but it can also give you more. As you age you can actually in-crease lean muscle mass and increase your
RMR. The elevated RMR will help burn excess calories and prevent bodyfat from creeping over your body.
The intensity from lifting progressively heavier weights also promotes the growth of the large type II muscle fibers that give you
both bulk and strength. This constant physical challenge keeps the nerves working overtime to maintain proper stimulation of these
fibers. By keeping the nerves active, you never give them time to retire and go dormant.
It all adds up to strength, better coordination, and the ability to recover from an injury. How many times have you seen older people,
who should still have many active years left in their lives, who can't easily get up from a chair or walk briskly? Even these people
can still benefit from a program of progressive resistance exercise because the nerves don't usually completely stop functioning until
very late in life.
A poet once wrote: "Don't go silently into that dark night." In other words, don't sit quietly on your behind and let the darkness of
age catch up with you. It is inevitable that we must eventually encounter the darkness of age, but we don't have to go down without a
fight. Instead we can go kicking and screaming. We can make life wrestle our youth away from us one day at a time. The next time you
stop to smell the roses, just remember that the tortoise of aging may be catching up with you. Enjoy the moment -then keep on moving
... and pumping iron.