It’s no secret that training effectively over forty is harder than it was at twenty or thirty. Muscles stiffen up, joints may not work as smoothly as they once did, and it is harder and harder to control your bodyfat levels.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As someone who can barely see forty in the rearview mirror, and will be closer to fifty in just a few weeks than forty, I’m still managing to train well and here are my secrets how:
1. Bodyfat matters
Over the age of forty-four the leading cause of death for men is heart attack. You know how to avoid having a heart attack? Stop over eating, avoid junk food, and get some exercise in. That’s pretty simple, right?
But did you know that higher levels of bodyfat in men lead to lower levels of testosterone? That’s right. Carrying too much fat decreases the hormone that is largely responsible for being strong and lean. And when testosterone is low cortisol is high. And cortisol is linked to weight gain too!
So clean up the diet and add in some incidental activity to help shed the pounds. The human body has been around for a long time and we spent a lot of that time foraging for food. Searching for food is estimated to have taken us 5-8 hours a day and covered a distance of 15-18km. Most of us now sit still for 5-8 hours a day and pat ourselves on the back for three hour-long gym visits each week. It’s no wonder people struggle to lose weight when they’re only moving ~7% as much as we were designed to. So get walking. We recommend at RPT that our clients walk for at least 30 minutes a day, every day.
2. Make sure to lift weights
Lifting weights may well be the fountain of youth if done intelligently. I don’t mean Crossfit nor do I mean power lifting. The overall workout intensity of a Crossfit WOD may raise cortisol levels too high (and remember that can actually lead to weight gain despite you working out) and power lifting can place large stress on joints that may already be showing signs of wear and tear from years and years of athletic abuse.
I just mean lift some weights. There are plenty of studies that show that lifting weights raises testosterone levels in the long term versus sedentary control groups. (Interestingly one study found that strength training increased DHT levels – the hormone that is responsible for male pattern hair loss. Perhaps this is why older guys who still train often end up looking like Bruce Willis?)
Beyond the hormonal response of lifting weights to help you stay younger there is also that strength training will protect joints and, as you get even older, help prevent falls, or damage from falls. Beyond sixty-five a fall that results in a broken major bone (hip, pelvis, or femur) leads to a three times greater risk of death in the next twelve months. Having both the strength to maintain balance as well as some extra muscular padding could literally save your life.
3. Move more, not less
There has been some recent media hype in Australia about activity levels in the over-40 crowd. Sadly, one of our great endurance athletes, Dean Mercer, had a heart attack at 49 and died. Look, no one ever said elite performance was healthy. To gain the type of fitness necessary to succeed at an elite level requires you to step over the line from healthy training to performance training. Because endurance training is about creating a bigger, stronger heart, just like we train muscles to become bigger and stronger it is necessary to stress the heart so that it adapts too. With normal muscles they actually get damaged a bit so that they recover bigger and stronger. Well, the same applies to the heart. Maybe not such a good idea to damage the heart.
But that is for elite athletes to worry about. I’m not talking about going out and running until you see stars and cough up blood. I’m talking about going for a walk outside. Firstly, did you know that low level to moderate aerobic exercise, like walking, has a boosting effect on the nervous system? It’s like therapy for your body and destresses it while lowering cortisol. Secondly, did you know that Vitamin D deficiency lowers testosterone? Do you know what’s outside? Vitamin D! So walking outside lowers stress hormones, which raises testosterone, it also helps you boost Vitamin D, which also raises testosterone! Winning.
Don’t count walking as part of your exercise for the day though. As pointed out previously walking is something we are engineered to do for extended periods of time, and many features of our body exist because of walking. Take advantage of them and reap the rewards. (And you can tell all your friends how paleo you are by mimicking cavemen by walking every day).
4. Reduce stress, sleep more, cut sugar
I know it looks like I just listed a bunch of things but it’s all the same. Trust me.
Stress raises cortisol levels. Do you know what fuel you use when cortisol is high? Glycogen. Glycogen is what carbohydrate is called when it is inside the body. Rice, pasta, cereal, bread – those are all forms of carbohydrate.
So, you’re stressed. You burn some carbohydrate from the limited stores you have. Do you know what happens next? Because of how clever your body is it signals that it is low in stored carbohydrate (glycogen). And it tells you to eat some carbs. Now, once you’re eating carbs (which are really just various forms of sugar that haven’t been broken down yet by the body), your body is more likely to burn carbs for fuel. So eat carbs, burn carbs. And then, because you’ve burnt carbs your body once again signals you to eat more carbs and the cycle continues…
The best way to stop this cycle is to firstly reduce stress and the best way to do this is to sleep more. Eight hours is the number. Not seven, not six, and definitely not five. Did you know that 18 hours without sleep leaves you with the same losses to motor control that being 0.05% BAC does? That’s right – six hours of sleep a night means you’re effectively drunk. have a think about that the next time you’re behind the wheel of your car on six hours or less of sleep. You are putting your life, your kids’ lives, your partner’s life, and every single person around you at risk because you didn’t go to sleep on time.
Not only is sleep loss associated with loss of motor control but it’s also associated with impaired reasoning, alertness, concentrating, and problem solving. And, to add to the issues, it’s also associated with higher risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes, and diabetes.
Lack of sleep, aside from all that negative stuff (as if they shouldn’t be reason enough), also puts you in a high cortisol state. And you know what that does by now right…? You’re going to wake up already stressed thanks to your insufficient sleep, reach for some sugar and start the whole cycle of anaerobic glycolysis (what that burn sugar/ eat sugar cycle is really called) and you’re going to get stuck there until you break that cycle by cutting excessive carbohydrate consumption from your diet and lowering stress by getting more sleep.
If you’re currently getting six hours sleep try getting seven. I know that sometimes it’s impossible to get eight. I know guys who, if they went to bed and got eight hours sleep, literally wouldn’t see their kids all week. But if you go from six hours a night to seven you’re effectively getting an entire extra night of sleep every single week. And who wouldn’t want that? You’ll feel like you’ve had a long weekend every single week compared to what you’re used to.
It should come as no surprise that if you want to be in good shape at forty-plus you can’t get away with the same things you could at twenty or thirty. The game has changed. Your body, and your metabolism, have both changed too. It’s time to grow up, quit (over) eating garbage, get in the gym, and take some time to look after yourself by moving more. as you add activity into your life you’ll also notice how sleep quality improves and it’ll actually help you stop wasting time at night and get to bed earlier.