Why You Need To Keep Exercising As You Get Older

It’s an unfortunate reality: as we get older, our muscles get weaker. In fact, from the age of around 40 or 50 we naturally start to lose muscle mass at a rate of about 1% every year!  

But old age is certainly no time to trade in your pair of sneakers. In fact, some of the incredible benefits of exercise continue right through to old age.

How Does Exercise Help Muscles?

When investigating how exercise affects muscle, it’s hard to look past the muscle’s mitochondria – the ‘capitals’ inside your cells that produce energy. The food that we ingest in our diets will eventually get to the mitochondria, where it is converted to fuel for every process in your body. The more ‘switched on’ the mitochondria in our cells are, the more efficiently your cells run. For instance, they become better at converting the fat in food to energy – a hallmark of an endurance athlete.

The great news is that you can give your mitochondria a boost – and exercise is the key. Scientists first discovered in 60’s that in laboratory rats, just 12 weeks of exercise, can double the total activity of mitochondria in muscle cells. Since then, studies in humans have shown that mitochondria become significantly more active in response to exercise in approximately 14 days.

Staying In The Green Zone

But as muscle mass can decline so drastically with age, does age also impact how ‘switched on’ your mitochondria are?

In a recent study, discovered fascinating results. The mitochondria of the older cyclists (who had been training for over 25 years) were significantly more ‘switched on’ – they contained on average two to three times as many energy-generating molecules than both young and old men who had not undertaken rigorous training.

This finding indicates that age is not the only determinant of muscle health, but that physical activity is a key factor. Importantly, we do not lose our ability to reap the benefits of physical exercise as we age. Previous studies have shown that just eight weeks of endurance training can improve the activity of mitochondria for previously untrained individuals in their 60s. These improvements are even greater when combined with resistance training!

Preparing For Older Age

For a long time, exercise has been seen as a one-size-fits-all approach. But not everybody needs to spend hours in the gym each day. Some people respond better to integrating exercise that fit’s into an average day, for instance walking your dog or taking the stairs rather than the lift.

And exercise is not the whole story when it comes to staying fit and healthy – diet also has a part to play. For instance, it’s no secret that eating protein helps you build muscle.

The bottom line is that while we can’t do anything about ageing, we can do something about activity and diet. We know that muscle doesn’t lose its ability to adapt to exercise, so it’s never too late to start!