Many physical abilities, such as strength, speed, and stamina, deteriorate with normal aging. In addition to these muscle-related declines, there are changes in the coordination of the body's movements. As a result of these changes, you may not be able to perform activities like running to catch a bus, walking around the garden, carrying groceries into the house, maintaining your balance on a slippery surface, or playing catch with your grandchildren as well as you used to as you get older. Do these activities, however, have to deteriorate?
Let's take a look at why these declines occur — and what you can do to improve your strength and coordination.
Changes in strength, speed, and stamina with age are all linked to a loss of muscle mass. Although there is little decline in muscle mass between the ages of 20 and 40, there can be a 1% to 2% annual decline in lean body mass and a 1.5 5% to 5% annual decline in strength after the age of 40.
Muscle mass loss is associated with both a decrease in the number of muscle fibers and a decrease in fiber size. The fibers die if they become too small. Fast-twitch muscle fibers shrink and die at a faster rate than others, resulting in muscle speed loss.
Furthermore, the ability of muscles to repair themselves diminishes with age. The decline in muscle-building hormones and growth factors such as testosterone, estrogen, dehydroepiandrosterone (better known as DHEA), growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor is one cause of these changes.
Changes in coordination have less to do with muscles and more to do with the brain and nervous system. To do everything from hitting a golf ball to keeping a coffee cup steady as you walk across a room, multiple brain centers must be coordinated. This means that the brain's wiring, or the so-called white matter that connects the various brain regions, is critical.
Unfortunately, the majority of people over the age of 60 in our society who eat a Western diet and don't get enough exercise have some tiny "ministrokes" (also known as microvascular or small vessel disease) in their white matter. Although the strokes are so small that they are not noticed when they happen, they can disrupt connections between important brain coordination centers such as the frontal lobe (which directs movement) and the cerebellum (which provides on-the-fly corrections to those movements as needed).
Furthermore, as you get older, you lose dopamine-producing cells, which can slow down your movements and reduce your coordination, so even if you don't develop Parkinson's disease, many people develop some of the movement abnormalities seen in Parkinson's.
Finally, changes in vision — the "eye" side of hand-eye coordination — are critical. Cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration are all much more common in older adults. Furthermore, mild difficulty seeing can be the first sign of aging-related cognitive disorders such as Lewy body disease and Alzheimer's.
How to Build Strength and Coordination
It turns out that one of the most important causes of aging-related weakness and coordination is simply a lack of physical activity. In our society, there is a widespread belief that it is acceptable to do progressively less exercise as you get older. The truth is quite the contrary!
As you get older, it becomes more important to exercise on a regular basis, possibly even increasing the amount of time you spend exercising to compensate for hormonal changes and other factors over which you have no control. The good news is that exercising to improve strength and coordination can benefit people of all ages. (However, to avoid injuries, you may need to be more cautious with your exercise activities as you get older.)
If you're not sure what exercises are best for you, consult your doctor or a physical therapist.)
Here are some exercises you can do to improve your strength and coordination, whether you're 18 or 88:
- Participate in aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week, such as brisk walking, jogging, biking, swimming, or aerobic classes.
- Exercise for strength, balance, and flexibility for at least two hours per week, such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and isometric weightlifting.
- Practice sports like golf, tennis, and basketball that you want to get better at.
- Improve your exercise skills by taking advantage of teacher lessons and advice from coaches and trainers.
- Work with your doctor to treat diseases that can impair your ability to exercise, such as orthopedic injuries, cataracts and other eye problems, Parkinson's disease, and other movement disorders.
- A Mediterranean diet rich in fish, olive oil, avocados, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and poultry will fuel your brain and muscles. Consume other foods sparingly. Sleep well — you can actually improve your abilities while sleeping.