The Idea of Long Life
What is your idea of living a long life? Is it retiring and finding your way to an assisted living facility? Is it taking medications that will diminish certain conditions to prolong your conscious life on this planet? What do you want your years to look like? What kind of ending or decline would you prefer? Can we do anything, or are we bound to destiny?
Retiring and relaxing seem to be the end goal of the American Dream. It’s working really hard for the majority of your life and then being able to do what we want on our own terms toward the end. But are we really able to do what we want after retirement? Are we investing our time and energy into the things that will physically benefit us when we feel our work is done?
Toby Keith sings “I was good once, as I ever was,” seemingly implying that age is directly correlated to demise. I believe that isn’t 100% true. If you are able to live a long and healthy life, there is a decline in health and immortality doesn’t exist, but we can control more elements leading to our demise than we believe. Now, I am well aware of the uncontrollable factors that play into our ultimate demise, but I believe we give these uncontrollables more credit than they deserve.
You are a billboard for how you live your life. Genetics play a part, but ultimately your lifestyle and behavior affect how your body looks and feels. As a strength and conditioning professional, it is my job to figure out what a person is lacking in physical abilities and then help them improve those to boost quality of life.
We all are made up of genetics that express themselves in how we look, mainly responsible for the physical advantages of our size, bone structure and muscle density. They are the factors that make us more susceptible to disease when compared to others. Some of these genetics are absolutes, meaning that we cannot change them, like the color of our skin, the hair on our head, dimples and freckles, height and shoe size; just to name a few. These make up a small fraction of our genome. All the other genes can be turned on and off by environment factors or our behavior.
A clear example of this is the thought that women shouldn’t or can’t develop strength because they lack the anabolic hormones men have. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Are men inherently stronger than women? Yes. But can women become much stronger than men? Yes. Our bodies, whether you are a man or a woman, will adapt to the stresses that are placed upon them. The differences between men and women don’t stop between the sexes. It is between every single person. Being 7 feet tall has its advantages on the basketball court but presents obvious disadvantages in the 100-meter dash. Being 5’9 is optimal on the wrestling mat but is a clear disadvantage in a Strongman competition. These do not discriminate by sex, only the physical demand of the task.
So what then creates a woman’s advantage over a man when it comes to strength? It’s how he or she lives life on a daily basis. I have met some pretty extraordinary women in later years of their life that can accomplish some pretty incredible physical feats of strength without the use of PEDs. One client in particular could deadlift more than 300 pounds when she was over the age of 50. I know a lot of men that could not do that in their 20s, not because they would never be capable, but because of their chosen sedentary lifestyle.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modifications of the way a gene is expressed without alternating the actual code of the gene itself. This was expressed in the last article when I discussed chronic disease. Chronic disease is only the result of gene expression over time that in turn causes a certain negative outcome. That is what this is all coming down to. Heart disease, diabetes, hyperlipidemia and obesity are all related to the behaviors we choose and are a direct result of our daily experiences.
How can you as a human fortify yourself to be formidable? I believe the missing link in our society is developing strength. This is an unbiased methodology, meaning there is not age restriction nor gender requirement. All of us need it to a certain capacity, and it is probably more important for the female population to inherit to improve quality of life. However, I am not going to disregard the fact that there are many men that are not unlocking even a fraction of their true potential of strength and need to adopt this as well.
I hear our female healthcare professionals in our community discuss the risk of bone disease in our pre- and postmenpausal women due to a lack of proper nutrition such as inadequate consumption of calcium. This is definitely a true risk factor for developing osteoporosis, but I believe an even bigger risk factor is a lack of strength training. No, I am not suggesting that every woman should bulk up to look like roided-up bodybuilders, but rather suggesting the increased use of free weights and understanding how that can improve quality of life no matter who you are or your limitations.
One of the most significant indicators of longevity in terms of mortality is leg and grip strength. Think about the struggles that we may be facing on a day-to-day basis: Do you struggle getting up off the couch? Do you have trouble walking up stairs? Let’s dive even further: Can you run a mile without stopping? Can you sit down with your hips below your knees and stand up all the way 10 times without stopping and no assistance? If any of these questions concern you then you may have a leg strength issue putting you at a higher risk for falling, and losing some quality of life or movement independence.
Why is strength more important than cardio? I believe a person searching for general health needs a balance of both, but if we are talking about fighting off disease and extending quality of life, strength has a slight edge just by how we are designed to demise. Your muscles are responsible for pulling your bones through space to do certain tasks. Some of those tasks need to be done fast and less often, others don’t need as much speed but need to be sustained over a long period of time. Both types of tasks require your muscles to perform, but they are different types of muscle fibers. Common terms are fast twitch muscle fibers and slow twitch muscle fibers. Each serves important roles in the human body, and we each have our own unique makeup of each giving us different advantages than others. Slow twitch are responsible for long duration activities like standing or walking a long distance. This is the most prominent muscle fiber type in endurance runners. Fast twitch are responsible for explosive movements such as sprinting, jumping, or lifting heavy objects. This is the most prominent muscle fiber in weightlifters and sprinters.
Why is this important to know? Well, as we age we lose fast twitch muscle fibers first. This is a clear observation when watching how the elderly move slower. It’s a part of the progression of life, but this process can be slowed down. When you strength train, you build up your fast twitch muscle fibers. They sustain their life longer when you consistently strength train over the duration of your life. Help one sustain a better quality of life for the long term. Research suggests that we don’t start this loss of muscle mass until around 40 years old, but even that can be prolonged with the lifestyle we choose to live. Don’t get me wrong. There is a downhill slide, but the point is that decline can be steady or rapid, which is dependent on the actions you take over the course of your life.
There is no retention of strength if it is not practiced consistently. When you get to a certain strength number, like squatting your body weight, then you have to continue your strength practicing or training to maintain and/or gain more strength. This is called progressive overload. The first record of what we, as a human culture, knew about this process was the Greek story of Milo and the Bull. The tale suggests that Milo gained his superior strength by lifting a steer every day of its life. As the steer grew so did Milo’s strength, as the loading was progressive and steady over the course of the bull’s life.
Strength is a long-term commitment that takes daily practice, consistency and patience. If we consider Milo’s example, he wasn’t superiorly strong until the Bull was at its full potential in size, which in today’s world is around 14 months. I can promise you that is not a realistic goal, but if you consistently strength train over the course of the next 14 months, I believe you would be thoroughly impressed with your progress. This is a chronic battle between you and weights. It doesn’t have an end date — only an expiration date when we all go into our long nap.
If you don’t know how to strength train, find a good personal trainer or weightlifting coach with whom you feel comfortable. There are endless ways to modify movements to make sure you progress in a safe manner. If you have any questions about strength training or how to get started, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.