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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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January 10, 2011

Monday Musings: Importance and Simplicity of Physical Activity for Oldsters

By Mark Sisson
68 Comments

A few studies caught my attention this week, not for being all that surprising or groundbreaking or even new, but because they jibed with something I’ve been mulling over: physical activity in old age.

Studies: the first and second. I grouped these together because they largely deal with the same thing. The first, actually a review of a couple dozen separate studies, discusses how basic physical capability seems to predict mortality later in life, while the second focuses entirely on the predictive ability of a person’s walking speed. This is redundant to anyone who’s ever felt a euphoric post-workout rush or the satisfaction of completing a physically taxing task, but judging from the number of people who make endless loops in the parking lot to score that sweet spot by the door and avoid empty staircases in favor of crowded escalators, we are in the minority. Things like grip strength, the time it takes to rise from a chair, the ability to balance on one leg, and walking speed were strong determinants of mortality. The death rate was 1.67 times higher in folks with weak grips, 2 times higher in those who were slowest to rise from the chair, and 2.87 times greater in people who walked at the slowest pace. Most of the studies reviewed were of older subjects, but the physical activity markers were predictive in young people, too. The walking study found that normal gait speed was an indicator of mortality with predictive power similar to BMI, smoking status, blood pressure, and other chronic conditions.

Again, nothing new. Muscle mass and activity levels have always predicted better health and longevity (that’s better longevity, not just longer longevity) in older folks across a number of studies, and our personal anecdotes corroborate this: your grandpa, the former farmer, with the iron grip, even on his death bed, or the old lady who still lives on her own and walks past your house daily who must be pushing ninety. It’s important to note that the relationship between activity and mortality is probably circular. Stronger people are more active and walk faster, while weaker people are less active and slower because moving around is hard when you’re weak. Stronger people have more organ mass and better metabolic health. Weaker people might not survive surgery or illness. Activity reinforces itself; the stronger get stronger (because they move) while the weaker get weaker (because they cannot). It’s not a simple linear relationship with a single precipitating event.

So, how do we maintain strength, muscle mass, and activity levels up to and into old age for the largest number of people who need it most? Walking’s a no-brainer, but that’s not quite enough, and besides, walking quickly isn’t the cause of increasing longevity; it’s an indicator of strength, which is a causative factor. Are we supposed to stick our grandparents in the power cage with copies of Starting Strength and gallons of milk just to stave off early mortality?

Not according to the last study. It is an older one that found low-load (30% of 1 rep max) high-volume (to failure) leg extensions produced more muscle protein synthesis than high-load (90% of 1 rep max) low-volume (to failure) leg extensions. Now, I know this isn’t anything close to the final word. Serious athletes and lifters will still be getting stronger, faster, and bigger using big, heavy weights and lower reps, just like millions of them have done for decades. It used leg extensions, which are a bit easier to perform to failure than squats. And finally, going to failure with 90% of your 1 rep max isn’t a typical “high-load, low-volume” workout. It would have been cool if they’d used an intermediate weight in another group, maybe something like 70% of 1RM. There is a key takeaway, though: it suggests that heavy barbell lifting isn’t required to get regular people stronger, which is a position I lean toward (see Primal Blueprint Fitness). Anything works, as long as it’s hard. Intensity is key, whether you’re doing the PBF bodyweight-centric workouts or lifting really heavy things. That means older or inexperienced people can build and maintain vital strength and physical capability late in life without putting themselves at risk by engaging in complex weighted movements.

Do the studies’ results ring true for you? How active are, or were, the oldest people in your lives? Is intensity the key, rather than load?

TAGS:  Aging

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68 Comments on "Monday Musings: Importance and Simplicity of Physical Activity for Oldsters"

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[…] Mark’s Daily Apple – A few studies caught my attention this week, not for being all that surprising or groundbreaking or even new, but because they jibed with something I’ve been mulling over: physical activity in old age. Studies: the first and second. I grouped these t… […]

Curt
Curt
5 years 8 months ago
I’m 53 and in recent years have played around with various mixes of heavy, medium, and light loads, all with heavy intensity. As I’ve gotten older, I have to begrudgingly acknowledge that it takes longer to recover from the very heavy days. As a result, I only do these about once every two weeks. All other workouts are done with light to intermediate loads, though I still push the intensity very hard. About four months ago, I stumbled across Mark’s Primal Fitness Blueprint and was gratified to discover that the program I had distilled for myself over several years of… Read more »
Ward
Ward
5 years 8 months ago

I agree. I’m 51 and I’ve been trying to figure out how to build swiming into my regular workouts. I do BJJ, Judo, kettlebells and a variety of other high intensity interval activities but my mile swim time has gotten slower and I am not able to lift as heavy weights as I used to even though I’m in better shape now over all. Lighter weight and more endurance. I suspect it is recovery time.

JohnC
JohnC
5 years 8 months ago

Isn’t intensity the key to *most* things in life? 🙂

I’m a firm believer that you only get the benefit of an exercise if you do it more intensely than you ever have before, even if you can only be that intense for one rep.

Ahmed
5 years 8 months ago

Haven’t been there in a while, but most of my parent’s families live in Egypt. Of the men over there, most of them stay working until they pass away. I rarely see a decline in energy, strength or any other factors, unless there is an injury.

That leads me to believe consistency plays a key role too. As long as there is a demand for strength, the body should produce it.

P.S. It’s not their diets, most Egyptians eat bread at every meal. Pita is a staple.

Paleohund
5 years 8 months ago

I agree. Most of the older people I know that are in great health and shape are still active, pretty much working until they die.

I will say that in terms of body composition, the ones I’ve met who look the healthiest tend to eat low carb and love liver and onions. And their handshake is rock solid.

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Kris
Kris
5 years 8 months ago

“Are we supposed to stick our grandparents in the power cage with copies of Starting Strength and gallons of milk just to stave off early mortality?”

Now that is a funny visual!

On a serious note, I wish my parents would listen to me about this stuff. Don’t think it’s gonna happen, though, which is sad. I expect a lot of us are in the same boat, watching our parents deal with growing health problems as they age and knowing it’s preventable… it’s hard.

Kitty
Kitty
5 years 8 months ago

Know exactly how you feel 🙁

Jeremy R
Jeremy R
5 years 8 months ago
I know. I bought my mom the BP and she promised to read it. She has “metabolic syndrome.” She doesn’t even follow CW, she just eats cookies and smokes all the time. She hasn’t read it; she won’t do it. It was money well spent because I had to accept that I at least offered her the tools to be healthy. I wouldn’t be a good son if I tried to keep this knowledge to myself because I didn’t feel like starting an argument or serious discussion with her. She is now worried that I’ve lost too much weight. I… Read more »
fritzy
fritzy
5 years 8 months ago
She probably does know what she’s doing to herself–it’s pretty hard not to know that you’re killing yourself with cigarrettes and inactivity. But inertia creeps. Plus there’s so much conflicting “health” information out there. It’s easy to know that what you’re doing is bad for you but really hard to know what is healthy. One way you could consider being a catalyst is to fix her a delicious primal meal–really go all out–just to show her what she’s missing. Mom’s love when you cook for them. Then pick a really nice evening when it would be hard to turn down… Read more »
Jeremy R
Jeremy R
5 years 8 months ago

She lives across the country from me. I visited her when I bought her the book. I made paleo lunches and dinners for her. She acted appreciative, but it was to no avail. BTW, I spent the entire week with her. I’m still working on it.

Julie
Julie
5 years 1 month ago
My husband and myself have tried to share the information with my sister who’s husband is type I diabetic and they mostly live off of refined carbohydrates. She just won’t see the light. But we continue to try. She also has three children that are affected as well not with type I but several other conditions such as exema asthma and heartburn/ acid reflux. As the saying goes you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make ’em drink. all you can do in good conscience is share and make sure they have the information what they choose… Read more »
Dave
5 years 8 months ago

If my experiences with airplane travel are any indication, a lot of people are going to die early. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been catapulted forward by the person behind me hoisting themselves out of their seat by grabbing the back of mine and then letting go once they’ve stood up. A combination of core weakness and cluelessness is a dangerous thing.

Amanda
Amanda
5 years 1 month ago
I hate that! The last time I was on a plane was about a month ago – when I was 6 months pregnant, with my almost 2 year old in my lap, and I still didn’t disturb the person in front of me because I was able to get up on my own – while holding my child! I feel for everyone and their families. Mine is the same, won’t listen or give it a real shot. A couple of them somewhat reduced their grain intake but wouldn’t give up bread or pasta or other bad carbs and then got… Read more »
Harry
Harry
5 years 8 months ago
I’m not quite sure what to make of these studies. I am 68. I *can* walk fast and get up from a chair reasonably quickly. I go for a brisk walk daily but I am not and have never been a fast walker. Aside from daily exercise, I don’t see the point. People who scurry around make me nervous. I would rather take time to smell the roses. That seems healthier to me. My ability to go fast when I want to has improved dramatically in the last year. Heck, before that elderly people in walkers blew by me. My… Read more »
Asturian
Asturian
5 years 8 months ago

Yep. Over the past few months I have re-adapted my walking stride wearing minimalist shoes (VivoBarefoots) and I now walk much slower and more aware than I did before with my longer fast-paced strides and heavy heel strikes.

I think my new way of walking is more of a sign of improved health not worse.

GirlinOz
GirlinOz
5 years 8 months ago

Same here. I walk 2-3km every day to and from work in Softstar RunAmoc Lites and find I no longer pound down the pavement. Still make good time, just less aggressive about it. The wear on the soles has completely changed too … minimal heel and more on the ball.

Tony
Tony
5 years 8 months ago

I believe the point about fast walking was that it is merely an indicator of underlying strength and ability, not so much a suggestion that you need to walk fast.

Jos
Jos
5 years 8 months ago

Dude you’ve already used this photograph!!

Brett K
Brett K
5 years 8 months ago

This picture is still impressive, even if I can’t really comment on the contents since I have no experience with this sort of thing

Vick
Vick
5 years 8 months ago

The study did 2 groups at 30% max rep.

The one group at 30 % averaged 14 reps per set and did not train to failure. The other group did an average of 24 reps per set but did train to positive failure.

The 30% group that did not train to failure did not show a increase in muscle protein synthesis.

I don’t the weight matters. It is effort and training to failure on the last positive rep.

Asturian
Asturian
5 years 8 months ago

I agree. I did two super slow motion squats (for a total of 90 seconds under load) yesterday that made my legs feel like jello for about an hour afterwards. I probably could have done the same thing within 60 seconds if I had spent more time in the maximum moment (joint leverage) posture.

Vick
Vick
5 years 8 months ago

… or decrease the weight, spend more time in the maximum moment and you will reduce the stresses through the muscles and joints while still having a workout that creates positive muscle adaptation.

Sandra
Sandra
5 years 8 months ago

One of my dearest mentors, Beatrice Wood, lived to 105. She did yoga, threw pottery and swore that the key to a long life was young men and good chocolate right up until the day she went to sleep and never woke up.

Amber
Amber
5 years 8 months ago

I can see it now: “Primal Blueprint Law #11: The key to a long life is young men.”

ROFL!

TrailGrrl
TrailGrrl
5 years 8 months ago

No, no. Young men AND good chocolate!

TrailGrrl

Debrah
5 years 8 months ago
did you know her personally-if so that is way cool!? My sister lives in the Ojai area and I picked up her autobiography while visiting–my sister met her once before she died. I have a younger husband and love chocolate so maybe I am half way there! AS far as older people and strength: My Grandma lived to be 100– my other grandparents smoked and/or over ate a lot of sugar. Grandma walked and did her exercises every day. She ate a moderate diet. She ate plenty of carbs but one thing I really noticed about her diet is that… Read more »
Shelli
Shelli
5 years 8 months ago

This study makes me sad! My mother who at 67 years old should be thriving…is very overweight, still gaining, and now extremely physically limited. For years she has been a parking lot circler – first it was for the spot in the shade on a hot day…now it’s for the spot in the shade CLOSEST to the door. She knows she has a problem, but just can’t seem to change it.

Amber
Amber
5 years 8 months ago
I have three great-grandparents still alive (all in their early to mid 90s). They are all very active people, but not in the exercise sense. They all are very social and busy in their lives and always have been. My grandma, daughter of two of the grandparents, mentioned once that her mom used to make fried chicken in lard all the time and there was never anyone overweight in their family when she was growing up. LOL! I think my great-grandparents generally ate way less-processed foods and were able to live more like Grok most of their lives. Heck, they… Read more »
Garth Whelan
Garth Whelan
5 years 8 months ago

I would make a point that both the more rep group had more protein synthesis as was measured, but they would also (logically) have more muscle breakdown.

Robin
5 years 8 months ago
This is something I’ve been saying for a long time and really is just common sense but most people don’t seem to think this way! The problem is this misconception that we get weaker as we get older. Not so, we get weaker as we get less active which seems to happen to the elderly when they stop the social activities they did when they were younger. My grandmother was very socially active which as a result made her more physically active. After alzheimer’s really set in she stopped being the social person she had been and her health deteriorated… Read more »
Diana
5 years 8 months ago

Mark, I see a lot of stuff about milk, read that it’s not bioavailable for our bodies to accept it. Where is the research for this? I’ve been getting a lot of flack for posting some of this stuff, even from registered dieticians and coworkers. This would help confirm why I subscribe to paleo and crossfit, using plant based calcium to meet my needs. Help please!

Henry Miller
Henry Miller
5 years 8 months ago
Mark has done several posts on dairy over the years, you should search for them. The short answer is only about 30% of adults can safely have milk. However the majority of them are of European decent, so they are disproportionately represented on sites like this. If you can safely drink milk, it is okay, if not, it is not okay. (Like most primal things, the most important consideration is what is best for your body, not what is best for everyone else but doesn’t apply to you) Milk is most useful for the type of person that needs to… Read more »
kem
kem
5 years 8 months ago
Just about to turn 59 and I am still in pretty good nick. Still stay ahead of the youngsters… in my dreams. I hope to see another few active decades and I am grateful to Mark for re-invigorating and reorienting my diet and training scheme. I do notice the need to take more care in the exercise department. You get easier to break and take longer to fix with as you age. My beautiful wife signed me up for a serious four day road cycle event next spring so I’ll have to slowly get sorted in the saddle and avoid… Read more »
Alison Golden
5 years 8 months ago

As someone who has just had to book an urgent flight to take care of her parents, this strikes home.

Illness leads to pain, a sedentary life, depression and ultimately death for many old people. The trigger disease starts earlier for those who are inactive. Seems to me anyway.

p14175
p14175
5 years 8 months ago

I was born with hip dysplasia and never have been much of a runner or even a fast walker. They say that babies born with this are prone to be hip replacement candidates later in life. At 50 I am starting to see problems. Another reason to go primal.

Digby
Digby
5 years 8 months ago
I watched my over-weight, carb-loving mother deteriorate physically, then mentally, over thirty years; getting diabetes in her fifties, and all the long list of nasty complications that disease brings, eventually dying from hardened arterties. And did little as she aged for exercise. She spent a fortune on meds– despite insurance. And did little as she aged for exercise.  She followed the doctors’ advice in all things, including diet. By contrast, my dad who never liked much carb food, preferred lots of fat and protein, was always lean, he walked several miles a week in our orchards, and last month was out… Read more »
Michelle
Michelle
5 years 8 months ago
My road cycling group is made up of people mostly in the age range of 45 to 66. Many of the 50+ are retired men who ride 3 to 5 days a week. I live in an area with a lot of hills, so the rides are never easy. It is tough for me (I am 46) to keep up with a lot of those guys. I hang as best as I can, but they can whip me any day of the week. As a matter of fact, I would say that the majority of our “fast” group, which averages… Read more »
kem
kem
5 years 8 months ago

Cool, isn’t it. Some of those 60+ kick butt in a four hour race. But they are not only fit, but skilled riders… and clever. Three of us youngsters (55+) got pipped at the line by this 68 year old in a local 45km race. The crafty bastard. btw, had a nice training ride today.

Kitty
Kitty
5 years 8 months ago
Good post Mark. My father is 71 this year and he has spent his life walking several kilometres a day plus 50 laps of an olympic size swimming pool. He also goes for a long run about 3-4 times a week. He only started complaining to the doctor that his legs are sore after a jog just last year, and wants to know why. It’s something he’s not used to. He is almost 7 feet tall and stands straight and strong with a lot of muscle mass (especially around the chest). Unfortunately, my mother is the opposite to my father… Read more »
Dawn
Dawn
5 years 8 months ago
My husband’s parents are 60-65 years old. Not ‘old’ by any means (at least in my book), but my father-in-law can hardly walk and my mother-in-law has constant ailments – leg pain, headaches, heartburn, etc. Besides their diet (which I won’t get into), they have a total lack of physical exercise. My father-in-law spends maybe 10+ hours per day in his easy chair watching TV. And after dinner? Both of them shuffle on over to their easy chairs for their nightly five hours of TV watching. Contrast this with my parents. Although their diet is pretty high in grains (they… Read more »
Stillfit
Stillfit
5 years 8 months ago
I’m 100% with you on this one Mark. Also, Curt, you took my words away. I’m 55 and more active and in better shape than almost anyone else I know who is my age or younger. I too tried different workout routines for many years until I found CrossFit 5 years ago. I modified their routines and WOD’s to fit my interests and opportunities and now I can’t imagine going back to a regular bodybuilder type routine. After I found Primal Blueprint and Fitness I added sprints, crabwalks, and other fun activities to my workouts. I can’t workout as ferociously… Read more »
richard
richard
5 years 8 months ago

after I discovered the Primal ways…I lowered my work outs to an hour and fifteen minutes from two hours and reap more from it than ever! that ten to twenty second dash on the cross trainer is very effective!

Ned Kock
5 years 8 months ago

Indeed, heavy physical activity similar to strength training (like that conducted by dock workers) may significantly reduce heart disease deaths, especially after age 45:

bit.ly/cFRgnT

js290
js290
5 years 8 months ago
BBC story on Muscle Wastage. Like Mark Sisson told those pesky 21 year olds, diet is 80% of your health. For those having a hard time “converting” their older parents, try making incremental changes to their diet before forcing them through some exercise routine. As Gary Taubes points out, the types of calories coming in affects calories out. It was easy for me to convince my parents to add resistance training (as prescribed by Body by Science) to their gym routine. They like that it doesn’t hurt their muscles or joints, that it lasts less than 20 minutes every 10-14… Read more »
Galen White
Galen White
5 years 8 months ago
Hello there, I just want to say that although I love this website to pieces, I do not want it to deteriorate into a “life is not worth living if you are not able to move freely” rant. I have had a physical disability my entire life and have never been able to walk and do not by any means want to see my life as dismal or un-changeably shortened because of it. Life has a lot to do with one’s frame of mind (read any of the the hundreds of articles out there on the positive effects of meditation),… Read more »
Richard Harrison
Richard Harrison
5 years 8 months ago

My Grandpa, lived to 93 smoked cigars, worked every day, I knew him in the garden, swam in our pool, weather permitting, daily. My mom, also lived to 93, walked daily until a couple of weeks before she died. Played golf, swam, gardened, basically active her whole life. They ate, what they thought was healthy, and worked hard… and also took time to relax, daily.

fritzy
fritzy
5 years 8 months ago
I’m an occupational therapist working in an acute rehab facility. After 9 years of experience working with mostly elderly patients, I am entirely convinced that inactivity causes aging, not advancing years. Sure, even the most active 80 year old is not going to be as fast, strong, limber, etc as an equally active 20 year old. But there are certainly 80 year olds out there that can beat some 20 year olds in strength and endurance tests. I see it in the rehab outcomes–the people that tell me they walked two miles a day prior to the hospitalization from which… Read more »
Victoria Férauge
5 years 8 months ago

When I first started lifting weights in my early 40’s I made the classic error – I vastly underestimated the amount of weight I was capable of lifting. As a result I didn’t see real results until I pitched the “Barbie bells” and picked up my husband’s barbell/dumbbell set. What a difference!

Now I just have to stop smoking….

Milliann Johnson
Milliann Johnson
5 years 8 months ago

For the smoking try self talk. I was able to quit a 35 yr pack a day habit, so effortlessly that it is scary! No cravings, no weight gain. And at one point I considered cigs my only friend! good luck. you might want to read some of the articles at this blog http://www.selftalk4success.com.

Trav
Trav
5 years 8 months ago

You could also try a harm reduction strategy to ditch the smokes. Many people in Sweden use snus, a spitless oral tobacco placed in the upper lip or between the cheek and gum. It’s worked well for me at a fraction of the cost of nicotine gums, lozenges or patches. It’s also a lot easier to wean yourself off of it as it delivers a slow, steady dose rather than the quick intense shot of nicotine you get from smoking.

Jay
Jay
4 years 8 months ago

I’ m with you….. I am a EX-smoker for 20 months now! I quit cold turkey after
53 years of stupidity. I am surprissed at how easy it was after, I made a committment to ‘never take another puff’! At 71 YOA I am now eating right and working off the 25 lbs. I gained. )O

Malin
5 years 8 months ago

I remember reading something similar on Stumptuous a while back: http://www.stumptuous.com/old-broads-the-golden-years-of-pumping-iron

It’s a bit sad because it reminds me of my grandmother who passed away last year. So much of her decline in the end was due to extreme physical inactivity and because of smoking (which she quit, after 40 years, yikes). There’s so many things I admire about her, but her physical fitness is sadly not one of them.

Sol
5 years 8 months ago

I used to read you articles everyday, and was very motivated because of it. I stopped for a long time, and have lost a lot of enthusiasm for my health.

My wife on the other hand has continued reading, and luckily kept our food in order.

She mentioned your site the other day, and so now I am back. I got out and road my bike Saturday, and can’t wait to get down and do some more pushups tonight.

Thanks for the motivation help Mark!

John Wells
John Wells
5 years 8 months ago

Mark-
I’m 66 and currently use a 28kg kettle for swings,cleans with push press,and snatches.I feel that I can go higher in weight,but my recovery is slower than it used to be.Mike Mahler suggested that if I can go heavier,do so,but be brief and optimize my hormones.My question is…is thare a level of stasis I shouldsettle into at my age for health and maintanence,or is it safe to keep going for it?

Trav
Trav
5 years 8 months ago

The man in the picture kind of looks like a buff George Carlin.

Sheila
5 years 8 months ago
My great-grandfather was incredibly active. Every winter he went down to Mexico to fish. There’s a news story on him where he says, “My doctor said if I row my own boat, I’ll row till I’m 100. If I buy a motor, I won’t live to see 100.” Well, he didn’t row till 100, but he lived till prostate cancer killed him at 89. Even after the cancer had set into his bones, he was running 5 miles a day and swimming a mile — a month before he died, he got on the news again for swimming across Lake… Read more »
StephenW
StephenW
5 years 8 months ago
I very much believe this to be true. I never thought of it in a long-term, throughout your life, way. But I see it all the time in retired elderly people. People who have active interests after the retire seem to live a lot longer than people who had their whole life wrapped up in their jobs and then are left with nothing after retirement. I know those examples don’t necessarily encompass having an active lifestyle, but it does elate to keeping your mind active. My grandmother in Ireland was a great example of what this article speaks of. She… Read more »
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5 years 8 months ago

[…] have been mulling over the subject of longevity and activity in old age.  He took a bit of time to look at a couple of research studies that also support the idea that physical activity is key in remaining healthy in later […]

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[…] Importance And Simplicity Of Physical Activity For Oldsters Monday, February 14th, 2011 Daily WOD […]

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Mark,

Could be because the quad is more fast twitch dominant and a lower intensity, high volume session produces the highest HGH Response.

Low reps are not the most suitable for hypertrophy anyways, especially in a mixed/slow twitch dominant muscle group …

Mark

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