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Fitness Past 50

No upper age limit for success

Contact Mike Gascoigne
Contact Mike Gascoigne


During your teenage years, everyone over 30 seems old, everyone over 40 seems very old, and anyone over 50 is not worth thinking about. From the age of about 13 onwards you look forward to reaching 18, the so-called "age of majority" when you can have a beer at the pub, you can vote in elections, and you can do all sorts of interesting things without having to ask permission from your parents. As you get older, the milestones seem to pass quicker, 30, 40, 50 etc., and you look at your children and grandchildren and remember the time when you also thought of the older generations as remnants from a previous age.

No wonder there is a myth that the over-50s are no good for anything, until you get there and realise that you are still just the same and you can do everything just as well as when you were under 50, and you can do some things better because you know more.

Sport has been to some extent responsible for the ageist myth because you become a "senior" at the age of 18 and a "veteran" at the age of 35 for women and 40 for men. Nobody knows what you become beyond 40. There isn't even a word for it, but event organisers are coming increasingly under pressure to create new age categories, 70+, 75+, etc.

When you observe a race, in which you have runners of all ages, you will normally find the youngest runners at the front and the oldest ones at the back, and the men will do better than the women. However, you are likely to see a few runners over 50 finishing among the first 20% and a few runners under 30 finishing in the last 20%. For the remainder of the race, making up 60% of the runners, it's pretty much a random distribution of the old and the young, so that if you took a snapshot at any point in the race you wouldn't be able to tell whether you were looking at the front or the back. Such is the range of abilities of runners of any age.

Most of the runners know pretty well in advance where they are going to finish. The slower runners don't even think about what is going on at the front. After a few races they identify their own personal rivals and try to beat them next time. Or they just try to do well within their age group. Most importantly, they make sure they enjoy themselves and always have a few laughs when they are tucking into cakes and sandwiches afterwards".

Would you like to be one of those runners? Or is there something else you would like to do? Maybe you just want to get fit, lose weight and become more active, without doing anything competitive. Whatever your goals, you can achieve them as long as they are realistic and you are sufficiently motivated. But first you need an assessment to find out what you can achieve, based on your medical history, current and previous activites, and your current level of fitness (measured from a few simple tests). Age will have an influence, but through regular exercise you can achieve some improvement in health and fitness at any age.

The relationship between age and ability is as follows:

  • As you get older, the maximum heart rate you can achieve during exercise decreases, so at any given level of exertion (a proportion of the maximum) you pump less blood around the body and you don't perform as well as a younger person. However, you can compensate for this through regular aerobic exercise, because it strengthens the heart muscles and increases the amount of blood that is pumped with each stroke.
  • When muscles are exercised, small micro-tears occur, and then they get filled in with new muscle during the recovery period between exercise sessions. This is how muscles are built, and they get bigger and stronger through repeated exercise and recovery. It's important to allow sufficient time for recovery, before the next exercise session, otherwise the micro-tears will develop into macro-tears and you get an injury. As you get older, the time required for recovery increases, which means you can exercise less often. A young person might be able to exercise six days a week, while an older person might only be able to exercise three times a week. Less training means less performance, but when you take lifestyle issues into account it might not make a lot of difference. Most people don't have time to train six days a week, even if they are capable of it. So as long as you can train three days a week you can put in for some local races and you will do just fine.
  • The time required to recover from injury increases as you get older. You can't train when you are injured, so you lose fitness, and if you are down with an injury for a long time, when you eventually recover it will feel like starting again from scratch. Then it's a matter of getting motivated, but there are lots of people who recover from serious injuries and return to their sport with greater vigour than they had before. The trick is to find out why you got injured and adjust your training so that it doesn't re-occur.
  • Older people tend to have more problems with joints, restricting their range of movement. The ability to exercise depends on what the problem is, and you might have to see your GP, but in many cases, regular exercise can be prescribed as part of the treatment. It releases the synovial fluids, lubricating the joints, and when performed against a resistance (for example lifting weights) it builds up the articular cartilage, increases bone density, and strengthens the structure of the joints. It also strengthens the muscles that are needed to hold the joints together. So if you think you are old and frail and you go to your GP complaining about your joints, don't be surprised if he sends you off to the gym to lift weights!
  • Older people have one distinct advantage, the benefit of experience, especially if they have exercised regularly and have already found out about their limitations. Then they can stay within their limits and enjoy many years of uninterrupted training, while their performance gradually gets better and better.

So, there is a wide range of factors to be taken into account when you are thinking about how to get fit, and you need to decide what sort of goals you should attempt to achieve. Please contact me if you would like some help putting together a personal fitness programme.

Mike Gascoigne