Recently I had the chance to listen to Ben Bergeron's podcast where he spoke about longevity. If you want to take a listen, here is the link. When we talk about longevity, we are not just speaking on the quantity of life but also on the quality. Longevity encompasses our ability to move functionally throughout our lifetime. Ideally, we would want to be 80 years old and still be doing triathlons and hitting PR’s. But at the very least, we want to maintain our independence in seemingly elementary tasks like carrying groceries, getting on and off the toilet, and playing with our kids/grandkids. Below we have highlighted some training principles that aid in longevity:
1. Strength Training
There are many benefits to strength training at all stages of life. As we age, the development and maintenance of muscle mass becomes even more important in counteracting illness, maintaining bone density, preventing falls, decreasing the rate of neuromuscular and balance deterioration, and improving overall wellbeing. It is very important to understand their specific goals when it comes to strength training. Strength training for muscular adaptation involves appropriately surpassing your baseline tolerance so that strength gains can be evoked. However, when strength training for longevity, it is important not to surpass physical or psychological tolerances (Bergeron 2020). While younger athletes training for peak performance require a push past these tolerances to evoke muscular adaptation, it is not as necessary for someone trying to attain or maintain their general physical fitness. It is important to acknowledge that strength training does not have to include consistently training at maximal work levels (hitting PR’s) in order to be effective.
As coaches, when programming for longevity, individualization becomes more important and periodization becomes less important. Strength training for longevity should be highly individualized, so as to accommodate each particular person and allow for modifications among varying ability levels (Maren et. al 2019).
The utilization of periodization in higher level or sport specific athletes is sensible because these athletes are working towards achieving peak performance at a race, game, or competition. Periodization becomes less important when training for longevity, because there is not a peak performance, in terms of a sport, that the individual is working towards. With periodization being less important, this does not mean that progressive overload can be ignored. Progressive overload is still going to be necessary for muscular adaptation, and this is best done through increasing resistance or load (Lorenz et. al 2010). Progressive overload is also desirable when training for longevity because it motivates individuals when there is notable, tangible progress in their exercise programs, and this is also more likely to encourage long term maintenance of the training plan. For more information on periodization, training, and progressive overload, check out our earlier blog post on the topic here.
2. Avoid Stress Overload and Overtraining
It is important to consider the fact that exercise is a stressor that is perceived by the body the same way as the other stressors in our life. These outside stressors (financial, professional, physical, emotional) tend to be present in greater amounts in adults, as most people have greater responsibilities during adulthood than they did during adolescence. From a physical standpoint and also due to these psychological stressors, the majority of people will not be able to sustain the same volumes of exercise at 50 years old that they sustained as a collegiate athlete. Therefore, when training for longevity, the intensity and frequency of sessions must be gauged with this in mind.
Ensuring adequate recovery time between sessions and adjusting training parameters based upon stress load are crucial when training for longevity. Incorporating breath work into the end of training sessions is also a tool that could assist in the management of overall stress. With myofascial release (i.e. foam rolling, soft tissue massage, etc), it is important to remember that this is a feel-good method to supplement training, but it should not be utilized as a standalone. Rather, it should be treated like a tool that opens up the window for good movement, mobility, and (most importantly) load.
3. Emphasize mobility/working range of motion through all joints
In addition to resistance training coupled with adequate recovery periods, mobility is an aspect of training that must be prioritized. Dr. Satariano of U.C. Berkely states,“Optimal health is being able to safely and reliably go where you want to go, when you want to go, and how you want to get there, is a key component of healthy aging.”
Data has also shown that in terms of mobility, shoulder, trunk, and hip mobility, start to decline the most rapidly in the fourth and fifth decades of life (Medeiros et al. 2013). Because movement in these areas is critical for independence and functionality, mobility and strength through these areas must be emphasized and incorporated more heavily in training programs as we age. We need to work through and introduce load to full range of motion movements because it has been shown that it yields the best results in terms of strength gain, strength maintenance, and performance improvement in several functional tasks (Pallares 2019).
4. Hone in to the Hips
Do movements, preferably loaded ones, that involve some sort of hip hinge. This will translate into simple tasks we don’t think about like getting up off the ground and going from seated to standing and vice versa. Sound hip flexion and hip extension are critical for effortless tasks like bending over to tie our shoes, so this “hip hinge” pattern of movement should be trained often to ensure functionality throughout our lifetimes. Movements like the deadlift, squat, kettlebell swing, and good mornings are exercises that work the hip hinge and require little technicality, while also translating seamlessly into daily movement patterns outside of the gym.
Moving loads through large ranges of motion is also going to aid in developing our midline stabilization and core to extremity movement patterns (Bergeron 2020). What does this mean? When training the hip hinge, the core is also simultaneously being strengthened, which will protect the lower back and make all movements through our legs more fluid. Simply put, move large external loads through a large range of motion, and do it at a relatively fast pace (Bergeron 2020) in order to maintain adequate hip functionality.
5. Move Things
Think: Pushes, pulls, carries. These types of movements mimic the activities we do daily while simultaneously working midline stability, muscular strength, and cardiovascular endurance. Farmers carry, prowler pushes, and sled work are great examples of these movements.
Moving things from Point A to Point B is arguably one of most valuable indicators of functional movement and health, so training this in the gym is a valuable asset in terms of longevity (Bergeron 2020). Think about walking: this is simple displacement but it is one of the first things to deteriorate as we age. Studies have shown that 31.7% of adults over the age of 65 report difficulty in walking just 3 city blocks (Satariano et. al 2012).
Therefore, moving things from Point A to Point B under load will make moving your body from Point A to Point B feel effortless. If you pull a sled or push a prowler at the gym, then walking long distances or hiking with your kids will be a breeze. Carrying dumbbells in the gym will make carrying groceries and moving boxes into your new house feel like a piece of cake. And they are movements that can be progressively overloaded very simplistically. Farmers carry with 40 lb dumbbells too light? Do 50 lbs the next session.
At a certain point, when our life goals shift away from being a competitive or sport specific athlete, our training goals must also shift. Training for longevity is a direction in which we can shift our focus so that we can maintain functionality and quality of life as we age. Programming should include displacement under loads (just think pushing, pulling, or carrying heavy things as we move) coupled with strength and mobility work, especially through the hips. These training patterns, with the help of sufficient recovery time, will assist in our fluidity of movement as we age, and will increase the likelihood of us continuing to hit PR’s when we are 80 years old.