I just came back from a run. Under a few layers of clothing, I am a stinky puddle of sweat. I do some yoga stretches and then throw my body into a steam and a hot shower, in the fruitless effort to convince my muscles to soften and not give me grief in the morning.
I am increasing my cardio workouts after my oncologist told me that, among some other “lovely” side effects from the drug I will have to take for a few months, weight gain is pretty much a sure thing. Charming. But I have noticed that, by increasing the aerobics and weight-bearing workouts, my muscles take longer to recover, often screaming bloody murder first thing in the morning.
We have been drilled with the constant refrain that exercising is key as we age, to combat muscle loss, balance problems and even improve cognitive functions. What we are not told is how are bodies start to “feel” differently. We complain of aches and pains that we chuck to getting older.
But what happens exactly?
- Beginning at around age 40, we naturally start losing bone and muscle density, which, in women, can be aggravated by the onset of osteoporosis;
- Fluid in the joints may decrease (some of the loss can be hereditary);
- Minerals may deposit in the joints, forming calcifications;
- The cartilage in the hips and knee joints starts to thin;
- Muscle tissue is replaced more slowly, and may become rigid and lose tone, even if we keep on exercising into our 90s.
I did not know that “human muscles are classified as either Type I or Type II. Type I muscles are slow to contract and contribute to physical endurance; Type II muscles are faster to contract and are associated with strength and power. As we age, even though we can fight the loss of muscle mass with exercise, we will still be losing these Type II fibers at the same rate. What happens is that instead of developing new muscle fibers from exercise, as we did when we were younger, the remaining fibers merely increase in bulk. In addition, with age we also lose some of our ability to control the firing, or activation, of our muscles. This leads to loss of coordination and strength.
Aging also brings a marked decrease in flexibility. This is caused mainly by changes in the body’s connective tissue, combined with arthritis. Lack of flexibility means that our knees, hips, and other joints must bear greater stress during exercise, rather than dissipating it to surrounding tissues, such as nearby muscles, as we did when we were younger.
This all sounds dire and hopeless. So let’s get to the good news.
Even accounting for the fact that, as we get older, our likelihood of injuries caused by exercise is higher than for younger athletes, we are still better off than same age population that doesn’t exercise at all. Also, there is absolutely no evidence that years of exercising wear our cartilage out. Exercise is not bad for our joints. In fact, ailments such as weakness and loss of balance that we commonly associate with old age are most often a by-product of inactivity.
As to my own anecdotal evidence, it seems that a long stretch post strenuous workout helps in easing muscle soreness. More importantly, I have to listen to my body and sometimes give it a longer rest than I was used to in between runs. Or a long, Epsom salt soak combined with low music and a good book.
Sources: United States Library of Medicine and University of Chicago