Most of us know it’s important to remain fit and active as we age. It’s not just good for your health and longevity, either. Maintaining a minimum level of fitness makes everyday life that much easier. Activities like running, for example, help keep our bones strong, energy high, and make getting around that much easier. Knowing what it takes to stay fit is important, because the results of exercise change as we age.
Regular activity is often suggested to mitigate the effects of aging, and there are few better exercises than road work for all around fitness. And while most of us wouldn’t consider road work to be strength work, as we age it could assist in the maintenance of strength and muscle mass by requiring the minimum strength necessary for getting around at a given speed. In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers wanted to find out if running was enough to maintain general fitness in older adults.
Running is a popular exercise for all age groups, but by far one of the most popular, if not the most popular, as we age. Many runners begin competing even in ultramarathons – races longer than the standard marathon length of 26.2 miles – in their forties, fifties, and beyond.
There are various reasons for the popularity of running, not the least of which being how simple and accessible it is. Anyone can run. It doesn’t cost much, and indeed costs nothing at all for barefoot runners, and can be performed pretty much anywhere. Its popularity and simplicity make it an excellent candidate for a study like this one, because if it is effective at maintaining athletic qualities as diverse as cardiovascular endurance and strength, then it might be the holy grail of exercises for aging athletes.
According to this study, though, it looks like running alone is not enough to mitigate age-related declines in strength. Over an average follow up time of almost five years, both the men and women in the study, aged mostly in their late fifties, lost knee flexion (think of a hamstring curl exercise) strength and knee extension strength (think of a leg extension exercise) at a fairly alarming rate. From the start of the study until its conclusion, they lost around 15% of their knee flexion strength and 20% of their knee extension strength. In only around five years, that’s a considerable loss in strength.
Every participant in the study was an avid runner, putting in around thirty miles per week. All of them ran less by the end of the study, creating an important limitation in the design of the study. There was no control group, which means no one to compare the decline in strength to.
In the future I’d like to see a study like this one that compared a group of non-exercisers, a group that did weightlifting only, and a group doing both weightlifting and cardio to the running only group. The participants in the running group actually did maintain their muscle mass, despite getting weaker, so it’s a good bet even some modest weight training will do the trick.
Until we see those results, the moderate recommendations are the best: do cardio and resistance training for keeping yourself strong, youthful, and well-rounded as you age.
1. Taylor J. Marcell, et. al., “Leg Strength Declines with Advancing Age Despite Habitual Endurance Exercise in Active Older Adults,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1097/JSC.0000000000000208.
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