March 13 2017

Dear Mark: Isometrics and Yoga for Seniors, Plus How Aging Affects Recovery

By Mark Sisson
29 Comments

Elderly man practicing sports on the streetFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering a few questions about exercising for seniors. Last week’s post drew a lot of comments, and a few questions about how seniors should train. First, I’ll explore isometrics as an alternative for building strength and power. Can you get away with only trying to move weight? Next, I show how yoga can be an effective strength-builder in older adults. Then, I discuss how aging affects recovery. Many people notice that their recovery time goes way up the older they get. I’ve noticed it myself. Why does it happen?

Let’s go:

I’m surprised you didn’t mention jump roping as part of “hopping”. How about isometrics?

You’re right. Jumping rope is perfect. People feel decidedly less ridiculous jumping over a rope than hopping in place. Isometrics are another great option for older people. Let’s explore.

Isometrics is resistance training where the joint is held in a fixed position. Instead of lifting or lowering the weight, in isometrics your effort takes one of two forms.

You’re either attempting to overcome an immovable force (pushing against a wall, pulling up on the chair you’re sitting on) or prevent a force from acting upon you (preventing a weight from lowering). Another way to think about these are concentric isometrics and eccentric isometrics.

Pause squats are one way to incorporate isometrics into normal resistance training. That’s where you “pause” at the bottom of a squat, holding for 3-5 seconds before rising back up. Finishing a deadlift by gripping the bar as long as you can is another way to incorporate isometrics.

If you want to make isometrics a major part of your exercise regimen, you should probably employ different angles. Isometrics training produces angle-specific strength; strength increases and tissue adaptations occur primarily in the trained joint-angle.

Oddly, there aren’t very many studies looking at isometric training in older adults. The only ones I could find dealt with isometric grip training, and they were impressive. Grip training exclusively was enough to improve blood pressure control in older adults. Maybe I’m going too far, but if isometric grip training can have those wide ranging effects, I’d imagine isometric training other parts of the body will be similarly beneficial.

After all, we’re all humans. We all respond to training. The key with undertrained, older adults is doing it safely. You want to get stronger. You don’t want to break or strain anything because that could really set you back. Isometrics are some of the safest, most controlled training methods around.

I suppose Yoga isn’t ‘uncommon’ but it sure feels good! Also, Katy Bowman’ s Nutritious Movement….whole body barefoot, move your DNA, etc….fabulous!

No, yoga is a good one. It’s not uncommon to hear how good yoga is for older adults’ balance, flexibility, and other similar measures, but most people don’t think of it as a strength-building tool. It can be. I should have mentioned it.

Among older adults, yoga is as good at building strength and balance as a typical strength training program.

Yoga can help older women with arthritis strengthen their lower bodies enough to prevent excessive knee adduction (caving in).

A 2012 research review in older adults concluded that yoga’s benefits “may exceed” those of conventional exercise for building strength.

I have been wondering about how age slows me down, though. I see these youngsters (20s and 30s) getting strong so fast. I feel like I’m being cautious because I don’t want to injure myself (long history of disc, joint injuries) but it also seems like it just takes longer. The last few days, my patellar tendon is sore and I’m doing everything I can to stretch and strengthen my legs so my knees are more stable. But is some of the pain age-related? I’m wondering how my body is responding to exercise differently from when I did triathlons in my 20s.

It likely is responding differently. That’s okay, that’s normal, but it’s a reality we must address and acknowledge.

Everyone just sorta “knows” that the younger you are, the quicker you recover. Sometimes it seems like an energetic toddler could regrow a finger if he lost it in a freak accident (don’t try this at home). And the older you are, the more slowly you recover. But why?

One factor are our muscle stem cells: These are the cells responsible for repairing and regenerating muscle tissue after injury and damage, and they respond differently to damage depending on the age of the organism. In one study, researchers took aged muscle stem cells and exposed them to a “young environment” and an “aged environment.” In the young environment, the stem cells quickly repaired damage. In the aged environment, the same stem cells were slow to repair the damage.

Another factor is the changing hormonal environment. As people age, hormones crucial for recovery and repair, like testosterone, tend to decline.

Testosterone matters for women’s recovery as well. In women experiencing declines in strength, muscle mass, and sexual desire along with low testosterone following a hysterectomy, testosterone replacement therapy restored sexual function and increased muscle mass, strength, and power.

There’s also—and this might be the most significant of all—the general trend toward inflammation increasing with age. Exercise is a stressor. Acutely, it increases inflammation, which triggers the recovery/repair response. That’s how we get stronger, fitter, faster—by bouncing back from inflammation better than before. But when baseline inflammation is high due to aging, recovering from those acute spikes becomes harder. We’re already dealing with chronic levels of inflammation

Can you improve this? Age really is just a number. Biological age is the real issue here. But with the way most people live, that number and our biological age tend to line up. Leading a healthy, happy life will contribute to a youthful internal environment, which should help.

That’s it for this week, everyone. Thanks for reading and take care!

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29 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Isometrics and Yoga for Seniors, Plus How Aging Affects Recovery”

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  1. Love all of this! Best line is at the bottom…”Leading a happy, healthy life will contribute to a youthful internal environment, which should help.” Sooooo true. And totally think yoga, isometrics, jumping rope and the Katy Bowman stuff (LOVE her!) is all worthwhile. It all depends on what works for you and what you love. Def think Katy Bowman is on to something!

  2. Your last two major paragraphs don’t give much hope to a 70-year-old woman trying to exercise for fitness while dealing with no cartilage/arthritis in her feet, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. But I keep trying–and hurting–is it worth making the effort or am I doomed?

    1. Meli I am far from an expert, and of course discussing your issues with your physician is advised, but a few things. Do you have access to a pool? Obviously, it takes pressure off your joints and you can get a surprisingly good toning workout as well as doing your cardio. Also, do you have access to a sauna? It’s a way to release toxins and get a cardio workout without any pounding of your joints. You have to work up your time / temp and stay hydrated before, during and after. Does your insurance pay for or help with physical therapy (or could you pay for a couple of sessions?), a physical therapist could set you up with a routine keeping your personal needs and limitations in mind (I was lucky to have therapy partially covered by my health insurance including pool therapists and have a bunch of handouts and exercises I build into my exercise routines based on their training). High blood pressure … again as an enhancement to medical guidance … search on “Flavonoid and glycoside phytonutrients blood pressure” and also “time-release melatonin blood pressure”, there is some research these supplements in combination with a good diet, extra potassium and exercise can help bring down your BP. All the best. – George B

      1. Thank you, George. I have no access to a pool or sauna, and the only therapy session I was offered taught me nothing about building strength. I will research your suggestions on lowering high blood pressure. Thank you again–your reply meant a lo to me.

    2. It’s worth the effort, even if you can’t do as much as someone else. You do what you can.

      Think about what Mark said about gripping exercises helping blood pressure. No, that’s not all you’d want to do, but it’s a sign that even something small is better than doing nothing.

      Find what you can do with your issues and then figure out how to make them harder. If you just can’t do anything with your feet, then how about bicep curls? Or leg lifts?

      Good luck! I know it’s frustrating. I’m only 47 but yeah, there’s a definite difference from the 20 somethings 😀

      1. Thank you for the encouragement, Shannon. I do a few hand-weight exercises from a seated position, but never seem to build strength. I can not do squats, lunges…or anything like planks that involves the floor because I can not get up. I can do leg lifts on my bed, but I’ve read that can be bad for my back. I will keep looking for more possibilities though. Thanks again.

        1. I have lower back issues and no longer even attempt exercising while flat on my back, so I’m with you there, but have you tried side leg lifts? Lay on your side on the bed and lift them and maybe that won’t hurt. If it does then stop of course. We’re all different so what works with my bad back might not work for yours, but worth a try.

          And being unable to get up off the floor is pretty common as you get older, but attempting it is actually pretty good exercise! Obviously don’t try it if you will get stuck there, but if you can manage it at all (like with a hard chair to hold on to? Or another person in case you can’t do it?) then that’s a good daily activity too.

          But I bet your best option will be chair exercises. There are a lot of options out there nowadays and many free videos on youtube. There’s also chair yoga (a friend of mine does that at the Y and it’s as hard or as easy as you make it).

          I hope you find something that works!

          1. So many possibilities that have never crossed my mind–I think I’ve bought into “disabled,” rather than pushing hard enough to be more “able.” Thank you for the ideas. I’ve never used youtube, but I will give it a try. And working to get up from the floor…I can see how good an exercise that would be… Good luck to you in your fitness!

        2. I don’t know what I did wrong but my response didn’t make it, so let’s try again real quick.

          I suggest you try side leg lifts. I can’t do flat on the back leg lifts either because of my back. Side leg lifts are much better and less likely to cause problems.

          Also, check youtube for videos on chair exercises and chair yoga. I think that’s your best bet. Good luck 🙂

    3. Have you looked into upper body strength training? It’s possible that even using lighter weights will help build muscle. Of course, you’d need to verify that you don’t hurt yourself further in terms of the osteoporosis, but the exercise will stimulate your bones. And perhaps some leg lifts to start for lower body as well?

      I doubt you’re doomed but rather seriously challenged in terms of finding the right exercises for you – making sure you don’t hurt yourself / cause yourself pain.

      I’d also look into chair based yoga (as a start) that recognizes the limitations of osteoporosis in someone. I do some yoga and find it more difficult than the weight lifting I do (I’m 50). Good luck – you’re in my prayers.

      1. Thank you, Julia. I’m realizing that I need to find a therapist/trainer with expertise in dealing with my issues…now to find one in rural MN. I will not give up. And thank you for your caring and prayers–you have mine as well.

  3. At 60 years old, I recently switched from 2 intense bodyweight workouts a week to every three days, instead. Made a big difference. I got too sore after taking 3 whole days off, but never get sore after taking just 2 days off.
    Those days of just going to the gym without warming up and playing basketball for 4 hours are long gone…

  4. I’m curious as to what kind of yoga is beneficial. I do restorative yoga, which has gentle stretching mostly, but few, if any, actual poses. Would it be helpful to take a class that involved more yoga poses? I’ve started doing Barre classes, which seems to cause fewer issues than the Body Pump class I was taking. Plus at Barre, I’m no longer the oldest person as I always was in Body Pump. Nice to see other seniors in classEs at the gym.

    1. I love restorative yoga, but think Hatha yoga would be a good next step in yoga. I find yoga to be difficult, but my instructor is big into using modifications to get me closer to the full move even though it’s a bit too much for me.

  5. Adding my two cents about the grip:
    I improved my grip A LOT doing what the greek guy who does bodyweight exercises (yes , the one missing a leg) suggests in his book: just hang using one hand from the bar (“one handed Grok hang” Mark would call it)
    And the other suggestion is hanging from the bar gripping folded towels (credit to the convict conditioning books.

    1. Dude, you are hanging from a bar with ONE hand?! I am duly impressed wildgrok. 🙂

  6. I’m wondering if exogenous testosterone supplementation is fair game for improving recovery and health in general as we age? It’s not like I’m participating in competitive sports, being tested for PEDs. What. Are the risks vs rewards of taking T as an anti-aging agent?

  7. I’m 74. I have been taking seated yoga* for a couple years. I was in the hospital and convalescent hospital for a month for a bad uti. I could do lots of the exercises in bed or wheelchair. I think that helped my maintain my muscle tone. (*It is lots more than yoga – stretching, standing balance, weights, aerobics. The teacher manages to hit every muscle group in the course of the class.)

  8. I started lifting about two years ago (thanks to this site), now in my mid-fifties. I found that adding weight has to be done slowly as I age. Every time I went up in weight I’d get injured (nothing serious but some nagging tendon or ligament pain or an odd feeling in my joints) so I stopped trying to add weight and just do what I can do. What I found is that the muscles will get stronger faster than my tendons and ligaments can handle the new load (at least that is my hypothesis) so I do my sets with the same weight for months even though I could lift more I just have to be wait till my tendons and ligaments “catch up”.

    I do a quick, basic set of bench press (mix of regular, incline and reclined), overhead press, squats and dead lift every other day and I am in and out of the gym in about an hour. Check out Alan Thrall on youtube for some great videos on proper form. On off days I stretch and sprint. I had two cervical fusions in my thirties and this has really helped me with my posture and chronic back pain. It also helps with muscling things around the house and at work which is what it is all about, not PR’s in the gym.

  9. I’m going on 67, 5-foot-9, male, 15% body fat and weigh in around 178 pounds. Fridays I lift weights, currently following Body By Science (BBS.) It has worked well for me. When I started lifting at age 62 I used to spend four hours a week in the gym following a conventional program. Four years later I had it down to two hours a week one day upper body, one hour lower body. I plateaued and had a bicycle accident about the same time. When the shoulder healed I went back to the gym doing BBS and five more classic lifts but one set to exhaustion. That has added muscle, so I am pleased by that and I am lifting only one day a week. I think the major difference is taking a week off between lifting sessions. I also bicycle more than 100 miles a week and fast three full days a week. (That’s all orchestrated so not to interfere with each other.) BBS won’t turn you into a body builder but it does tone up your natural physique and of course wards off sarcopenia. While I felt okay lifting twice a week my improvement stalled. One week fits into my other activities and seems to work.

  10. One point about isometrics, especially for seniors. Many people tend to hold their breath during isometrics. It is important to keep breathing during the isometric exercise so that the exercise does not trigger the Valsalva maneuver.

  11. I do isometric squats everytime I use a public toilet and refuse to let my butt touch the seat.

    1. Nice.

      That posture is also good for passing a tricky stool, especially if you put your weight forward onto the balls of your feet.

  12. For squats I’d reverse the hold position. Holding at the bottom is risky to your back. Instead, don’t lock out your knees when you come up.You’ll feel the burn quickly and get much stringer without risk to back.

  13. Hi Mark, I’m 54 and need to change my diet and get into better shape. I have worn out knees, am very overweight (100lbs) and am not very flexible. I’ve recently had a career change due to my knee problems and have gone from being on my feet 10 hours a day, to a desk job. I don’t know where to start. Help!