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

For today’s edition of Dear Mark [1], 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 [2] as a typical strength training program.

Yoga can help older women [2] with arthritis strengthen their lower bodies enough to prevent excessive knee adduction (caving in).

A 2012 research review [3] 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 [4], 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 [5], tend to decline.

Testosterone matters for women’s recovery [6] 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 [7].

There’s also—and this might be the most significant of all—the general trend toward inflammation increasing with age [8]. Exercise is a stressor. Acutely, it increases inflammation [9], 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!