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Middle Aged & Stronger Than Ever

By: Kandice Swarthout

I fell in love at age 14 with lifting heavy things. My dad had been going to the gym and I noticed a change in his physique and asked to join him. As soon as I walked into the front doors of that Gold’s Gym, I was in love. I remember the way it smelled: like sweat and old metal. I remember the rust at the bottom of the squat rack where the chains and metal plates were kept. He took me through different exercises and from that moment on, the foundation was laid.

The 80’s turned into the 90’s, the 90’s into the 2000’s and now here I sit as a middle-aged athlete and the strongest I have ever been. Last year, while training a friend, an unfortunate accident led to breaking my left foot. Fortunately, it had nothing to do with my training regimen. Embarrassingly, I dropped a bumper plate and it crushed my foot. The news that it was broken was devastating because I was just days away from reaching a long sought-after strength goal. Off I went, from the emergency clinic to the orthopedic doctor.  After looking at my radiographs and performing a physical exam (more like a cruel exercise in torture) the physician’s assistant said something that stopped me in my tracks. I sat dumbfounded, listening to his words, “What is a woman your age doing working out like this?” I felt heat rush into my face as the anger rose from the depths of all things rude and ignorant. I responded with, “I hope to be doing this when I am 65 and 75.” He then said, “Well, I hope not!” Good thing for him I had a broken foot, because it was all I could do to not kick something at his misinformed head.

I tell this story because it led me to wonder what our healthcare system really believes about middle-aged and senior adults engaging in intense—but safe—strength and endurance activity. If this well-educated practitioner believes that my healthy 45-year-old body should be restricted to light walking and stretching, what do the majority of older adults believe about their physical abilities and movement in general?  Are doctors really discouraging healthy adults from exercise and then dumbfounded when that patient cannot bend to tie their shoes at age 70?

As for me and my family, we want to tie our own shoes, make our own meals, get off the toilet without assistance, remain free of disease, and enjoy life well into our late years. I believe that in order to accomplish these goals, a woman my age needs to be “working out like this.”  Now, do not get me wrong; I am not suggesting sending your mom to Crossfit or signing her up for Ninja Warrior training, due to the nature of their high intensity. I engage in safe, low volume, but relatively heavy, kettlebell training and running. The key word is safe! What can you do on a daily basis that is sustainable for a lifetime and does not leave you on the couch with ice packs and aching joints?

What does science say about aging and strength training and/or running? An Austin, TX study states that the risk of disease increases with age when physical activity decreases. The researchers also found that adults that continue to engage in athletic endurance competitions greatly reduce or eliminate the prevalence of age-related disease. Which came first, the chicken or egg? Based on these statements, it would make sense that ongoing activity through middle-aged years would prevent the risk of many diseases.

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Brett Jones, the Director of Education at StongFirst, states that a sedentary lifestyle reduces blood flow and increases stiffness. Jones goes on to say that this reduction in blood flow is also a contributing factor to age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes due to physiological changes in the arteries. So, as we age, remaining mobile through endurance and strength activity keep blood vessels healthy, which result in a reduction of related diseases.

Research shows that “so called” external physical changes in adults can be improved through appropriate intensity strength training.  Between ages 20 to 30, the average person’s muscle mass is about 30% of body weight. This decreases over time and can be as reduced to as much as 15% at age 80. This loss of muscle mass greatly contributes to loss of simple daily task function. Adults become sedentary and, in turn, begin to lose strength. This loss of strength leads to further muscle depletion.  A year-long study on aging women revealed that moderate exercise (2-4 sets, 8-15 reps, 3 times a week), working a variety of muscle groups, shows a significant slow down in the loss of muscle fibers. According to the study, this halt on muscle fiber deterioration leads to better quality of life.

If you are reading this, there is a good chance you are already relatively active or even a competitive athlete. Perhaps you are beginning to feel the aches and pains brought on by being an aging athlete. In my experience as a half marathon runner and a kettlebell/barbell instructor, I believe that it is essential that we listen to our bodies and make adjustments as needed. For example, in my 20’s and 30’s, I was all about high volume. I wanted as many reps as possible and would spend over an hour on one muscle group.  Today, I have reduced my training to 45 minutes per day, 3 days a week, focusing on pure strength, strength endurance, and shorter distance runs. This keeps me strong, mobile, flexible, and allows me to stay active with the kids in my life without the ice packs.

While some health professionals may believe and promote the idea that women and men of a certain age should resign themselves to low activity and succumb to the perils of aging; I believe that it is never too late to find your inner athlete, compete in a race, earn a fitness certification, or accomplish personal fitness goals.  After all, a woman or man of your age may be at the peak of their fitness.

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About The Author

Kandice is a certified SFG1 kettlebell and barbell instructor with Strongfirst. She is a dental hygiene professor and licensed professional counselor. Kandice has trained with kettlebells for over 7 years to improve strength and distance running.