Age appropriate exercise

Original Publication – June 2020

In this bizarre time where a large percentage of the population has been confined to their homes, trying to maintain activity level has required some creativity, especially for those that are used to attending exercise classes in a structured format. Many people have been searching YouTube for a variety of videos to get ideas for workouts. This is where the problem arises. Just because an exercise looks “good” does not mean it is appropriate for your current fitness level, age, body type, or health history. This is where YouTube becomes dangerous. Most of these videos posted online merely demonstrate an exercise movement but do not provide the appropriate warnings. If warnings are given, the human psyche is to ignore the warning, because our mind takes us back to a time when we had the ability to perform the exercise with minimal risk.

As we age, there is a need to change how we exercise and why we exercise. Our bodies change with age and react differently to a variety of exercise types. The question remains: why do we need to change our plan for exercise and activity, as we get older? If you have an orthopedic medical problem such as shoulder, knee, neck, or back pain, then this becomes your limiting factor and your exercise routine must be designed around it. Trying to ignore your limiting factor will only raise your level of frustration. YouTube is not the place to try and negotiate your way around your particular limiting factor; speak to a healthcare professional. In addition to any particular orthopedic issues, our muscles are negatively influenced by age itself, lifestyle, and disease. While one of these items may not limit our activity, two or more together are more likely to do so.

A scientific review of studies regarding the effects of aging on muscle found decreases in muscle mass (known as atrophy) and strength, insulin sensitivity, mitochondrial dysfunction, reduced reaction time, and reduced regenerative ability, all of which are exacerbated by obesity. Muscle atrophy begins in our forties and fifties and by age 50 as much as 10% of muscle mass may be lost. Muscle strength continues to decline 2%-4% per year. While we know that resistance exercise will improve muscle mass and strength, aerobic exercise will improve insulin sensitivity and mitochondrial function. Regenerative ability maybe related to age, genetics, diet and lifestyle together. Therefore as we age we literally become “high maintenance”. This means that we actually have to put more thought into our health. We can no longer eat what we like, exercise without limits, stay up all night, etc.

Our digestive system also changes as we age. As our digestive system changes so should our diet. It is not necessarily about eating less as much as it is about eating differently. Foods we once tolerated may not be tolerated as we age. Food intolerances result in chronic low-level inflammation and negatively effect insulin sensitivity and mitochondrial function. In simple terms: poor fuel creates poor muscle function. So seek advice on dietary changes and if restricting dairy, gluten, soy, sugar, etc., may be necessary to control obesity.

Resistance exercise like weight training or body weight training can slow or even reverse the process of age related muscle atrophy. As previously stated, a program of resistance training while helpful must be designed around any injury or age-related orthopedic issues. There are however simple principles that can be followed in most cases; restore linear strength or movements in straight lines first, then begin to restore multidirectional movements. Keep in mind that aging muscle has reduced reaction time so movements should be smooth and controlled – not quick, fast, swinging, or jerky. Since regenerative properties are reduced, recovery time should be extended. Recovery does not mean complete rest; it generally means exercising differently for two days rather than one day following an intense exercise session. Muscle soreness is a good indicator that extra recovery time is needed.

There is a large volume of research that verifies the regeneration of injured skeletal muscle is reduced and/or delayed following an injury. In addition to slow recovery, aging muscle has a high propensity for scarring as part of the healing process. Inter- and intra-muscular scarring increases muscle stiffness and, with that, there is a higher risk of recurrent injury.

Insulin sensitivity and reduced mitochondria appear to be a secondary effect of the reduced physical activity and increased body fat commonly seen with aging. Aerobic exercise even in patients in their seventies, can improve insulin sensitivity and improve mitochondria size, number, and function, thus improving muscular energy level.

Changing your diet, choosing the right mix of resistance exercise and aerobic exercise, and the correct intensity that will help you meet your fitness and health goals can be a daunting task. Start with speaking to health professionals and not looking for the next cool thing on YouTube.

Dr. Buchberger is a licensed chiropractor, physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist and Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians with 32 years of clinical sports injury experience. Dr. Buchberger can be contacted at 315-515-3117, or