I remember when I was 15 years old thinking to myself, “If I live to be 65 years old, that means I’ll be around for 50 more years. Wow, that’s a really long time!” Fifty years is like forever to a teenager.
We’ve all had these kinds of thoughts when we were young. Our bodies were strong and vital, and we thought we’d never grow old.
The concept of aging never occurred to us. Oh maybe we saw it in our grandparents. But, again, from a teen’s perspective that age was far, far away.
But the years keep adding up, and then one day we take notice of what’s happening to us.
At 40, you start to notice that you don’t recover from exercise like you used to. The aches and pains that disappeared after a few days now linger for months.
At 50, you realize that your body has definitely seen better days. 55 brings a medicine cabinet that is starting to get populated with prescription meds for what our society calls lifestyle diseases. You know what those are: hypertension, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and even heart disease.
At 60, aging starts to become a concern. Maybe you notice it’s a little bit of a struggle getting up the stairs, maybe at times you forget where you put your car keys, maybe you hesitate to lift up your grandkids because your back isn’t as strong as it was 20 years ago.
Wow, isn’t this all kind of depressing? Is the best we have to look forward to a continuous descent into ever worsening physical decline? I mean, is a walker or a wheelchair or the assistance from a stranger just to go to the bathroom what we’re destined for?
No! It doesn’t have to be. I’m going to show you that it’s scientifically and empirically proven that we can delay the aging process or even, possibly, reverse it to some extent.
Reversing The Curse
I’m not saying that we can get rid of gray hair (if we have any hair left to gray). I’m also not saying that we can get rid of those crow’s feet around our eyes or the brown spots accumulating on our hands.
What I am saying is that even if you’re a 57 year old aging couch potato (like I was), you can once again have a strong and vigorous body, perhaps even one to rival the one you had in your thirties or forties.
And here’s something very important. Not only can you recapture strength even into your eighties, your muscle cells can actually regain a gene expression that is of a much younger age than your actual chronological age.
Did you catch that? Your muscles can not only get stronger, they can get younger as well!
Lifespan Versus Healthspan
Now, no one can guarantee you a long life. Our lifespan (the number of years we live) is in the hands of God. But we can strive to improve our healthspan (the years we live with good health).
In this post, I’ll show a scientifically proven way to improve the cellular age of your muscles.
And I’ll also show you how to develop better muscle quality. That means you’ll have stronger, healthier pain-free muscles and joints.
You don’t have to resign yourself to the fact that your body has to eventually disintegrate into a pool of mush.
Before we look at the scientific solution, let’s take a deeper look at the problem.
Aging Muscle — The Danger Of Sarcopenia
After the age of 30, our muscle mass begins to deteriorate. It happens to everyone, and it’s called age-related sarcopenia. However, for sedentary individuals, the loss of muscle mass can be profound and ultimately become a dangerous health situation.
Researchers estimate that physically inactive individuals can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30.
That means, on the conservative side, you could lose 24% of your muscle mass by the time you’re 70 years old.
Different muscle groups may also be more affected than others. Research has shown that you could lose as much as 40% muscle mass in your quadricep muscles (thighs) between the ages of 20–80.
Age-related Loss Of Muscle Strength
Muscle loss translates into a loss of muscle strength. Older adults can expect to be at least 20% to 40% weaker than their younger adult selves. However, after the age of 60, the loss of muscle strength exceeds the loss of muscle mass. This study concluded that
Muscle strength might be more important than muscle mass as a determinant of functional limitations and mobility status in older age.
Think about how the loss of muscle strength could affect your quality of life. Does your house have stairs to climb? Do you take packages out of your car? What about getting off a toilet every day?
If we want to be able to effortlessly perform these activities well into old age, we must maintain muscle strength.
Losing too much strength due to aging means losing independence and perhaps even a devolution into a life of frailty.
Why Do Our Muscles Decline With Age?
As researchers delve more into the science of aging, they have proposed a number of reasons why our muscles deteriorate with age.
These include programmed cell death, oxidative stress, alterations in protein turnover, inflammation, hormonal dysregulation, disuse, and mitochondria dysfunction.
While all these factors play an important role in the aging of muscle mass, mitochondrial dysfunction has caught the attention of researchers.
The Role Of Mitochondrial Dysfunction
You’ll remember from high school biology that mitochondria are the power plants of your cells.
Researchers are now convinced that dysfunction within these mitochondria is a major cause of aging. They are, however, not as of yet sure of the exact processes involved.
But consider this. If you could limit mitochondrial damage, you should theoretically be able to slow down the process of muscle aging. Let’s take that a step further.
If you could improve the function of your mitochondria, could you reverse the aging process and possibly make your muscles young again?
Researchers suggest that this may be possible.
Strength Training Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle
In a 2007 study, researchers led by Simon Melov of the Buck Institute studied 25 healthy, relatively active, older individuals (≈70 years old) and 26 younger (≈30 years old) sedentary individuals.
Skeletal muscle biopsies were performed on the younger and older individuals. The older individuals were placed on a 6-month progressive (weights gradually increased) strength training program.
After the 6-month exercise period, muscle biopsies were performed on 14 of the older individuals. Okay, you’re probably thinking the population size is not that large. True, but studies of this type are extremely difficult to perform. However, the study was well randomized and controlled.
Nonetheless, the results were astounding!
The Results Of The Buck Study
After the 6-month strength training program, the Buck researchers found that,
…the older individuals were able to improve strength by approximately 50%, to levels that were only 38% less than that of young individuals.
This means that the older individuals who were engaged in the weight lifting program were able to narrow the strength gap between themselves and the 30-year-olds from 50% to 38%.
That’s a 36% improvement in strength in just six months. Imagine what could happen after three years of training.
Does Stronger Mean Younger?
Okay, so far this study showed that older people even up to their seventies can recapture strength. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they reversed their age, right?
Well, yes and no. If I’m stronger today at 62 years old than I was at 30 years old, then I’ve in a sense recaptured the strength of my youth.
But does that necessarily mean that I’m going to live longer?
Again, yes and no.
Stronger muscles have an important effect on increasing healthspan which can have an important effect on increasing life span.
For example, if I can remain strong in my years going forward, then my risk of disability is greatly reduced. Also improved muscularity is associated with improved biomarkers including insulin sensitivity.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the question of getting younger. Did the seniors who lifted weights get younger? Let’s see what the study said.
Researchers in the Buck Study performed muscle biopsies on seniors before and after a 6-month training regimen in order to examine their mitochondria. Previous to weight training, even though the seniors were healthy, their mitochondria revealed a gene expression that was consistent with their age.
However, when the researchers observed the muscle biopsies in the seniors who had weight trained for six months, they found,
…a remarkable reversal of the expression profile of 179 genes associated with age and exercise training…Genes that were down-regulated with age were correspondingly up-regulated with exercise, while genes that were up-regulated with age, were down-regulated with exercise.
Genes that are downregulated with age show a marked reversal to youthful levels with exercise, and genes that are upregulated with age also show the same trend to return to youthful levels in association with exercise.
In other words, the 14 older individuals who weight trained developed younger muscles as expressed by their genes.
The researchers summed up by stating,
We report here that healthy older adults show a gene expression profile in skeletal muscle consistent with mitochondrial dysfunction and associated processes such as cell death, as compared with young individuals. Moreover, following a period of resistance exercise training in older adults, we found that age-associated transcriptome expression changes were reversed, implying a restoration of a youthful expression profile.
Did you get that? When it comes to muscle mitochondria, weight training can reverse almost 40 years of aging!
Weight training, however, is not the only way to improve mitochondrial function. Let’s take a look at a Mayo Clinic study.
The Mayo Clinic Study — Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Exercise
As I’ve mentioned, researchers believe that mitochondrial dysfunction plays a key role in the aging of muscle. This dysfunction ultimately leads to a loss of strength and endurance.
In 2017, the Mayo Clinic released a report on their findings concerning muscle cell adaptations of younger and older individuals as a relation to different types of exercise.
The younger age group (aged 18 to 30) and the older (age 65 to 80) were split into 3 different exercise groups. These were high-intensity interval training (HIIT), specifically biking and walking, strength training using weights, and a combination of moderate intensity interval and strength training.
Following 12 weeks of training, researchers took a biopsy from the thigh muscles of each individual. They then compared the molecular makeup and lean muscle mass of each group, along with sedentary controls.
This is what they found.
Results of the Mayo Clinic Study
The Mayo team found that strength training is more effective at building muscle than the other forms of exercise. That was an expected finding.
Another expected result was that HIIT had the greatest effect at inducing positive changes at a cellular level, especially on mitochondria.
However, what surprised the Mayo researchers was the effect of HIIT on the muscle cells of the older group.
The Older HIIT Group Showed Dramatic Mitochondrial Improvement
While the younger group of HIIT individuals showed a 49% increase in mitochondrial capacity, the older volunteers experienced a stunning 69% increase. Combined training produced the least favorable results.
Also, the HIIT group comprised of older individuals showed the highest amount of improved gene expression which also surpassed that of the younger HIIT group.
The researchers also found that HIIT caused an increased expression of the genes that produce mitochondrial proteins and protein responsible for muscle growth. This means that HIIT may slow down or even reverses the age-related decline of muscle.
The Conclusion of the Mayo Clinic Study Authors
Dr. Sreekumaran Nair, one of the Mayo clinic’s study authors stated,
Unlike liver, muscle is not readily regrown. The cells can accumulate a lot of damage, however, if exercise restores or prevents deterioration of mitochondria and ribosomes in muscle cells, there’s a good chance it does so in other tissues, too.
According to Nair, exercise may prevent mitochondrial deterioration and possibly reverse damage already done, even in other tissues.
The editors from Science Daily were also enthusiastic concerning the results of the study.
… exercise — and in particular high-intensity interval training in aerobic exercises such as biking and walking — caused cells to make more proteins for their energy-producing mitochondria and their protein-building ribosomes, effectively stopping aging at the cellular level.
So, according to this study, the best way to restore or prevent muscle deterioration is to engage in HIIT.
However, is HIIT alone the best exercise for anti-aging?
The Best Anti-Aging Exercise Strategy
Concerning the best anti-aging exercise program, Sreekumaran Nair stated,
Based on everything we know, there’s no substitute for these exercise programs when it comes to delaying the aging process. These things we are seeing cannot be done by any medicine. Exercise is critically important to prevent or delay aging.
Ok, but which is the best? Nair clarified by adding,
If people have to pick one exercise, I would recommend high-intensity interval training, but I think it would be more beneficial if they could do 3–4 days of interval training and then a couple days of strength training.
From a cellular standpoint, HIIT is the best anti-aging exercise program. However, HIIT will not build the muscle quality that strength training can provide. Therefore, in order for you to achieve improved health and possibly a longer life span, it would benefit you to combine both methods of training.
Now, this is all good in theory. But an important saying goes, “the best exercise program for you is the one that you’ll stick with.”
While HIIT has been proven to be the best at optimizing cellular function, it’s also extremely difficult for older individuals to do.
My N=1 Experience With HIIT and Strength Training
Five years ago, at 57 years old, I was about 80% recovered from a 30-year struggle with CFS. I was also recovered from a two-year bout of severe bursitis in both shoulders.
Even though I had been doing a brisk 35-minute walk at least 5 days a week for about 6 years, my musculoskeletal system was in pitiful shape.
One evening, I happened to glance at my arms and was shocked at what I saw. My arms were puny and frail looking. That was my motivation to start strength training.
Initially, I started with 15-pound dumbbells. I did three sets of eight reps of bench press, overhead press, and curls three times a week. I didn’t have a specific plan.
Since I had no pain and little fatigue, I continued on. After a few weeks, I graduated to a barbell.
As the months went by, I eventually found the Starting Strength method. This system is a barbell program that involves four basic exercises: deadlift, back squat, bench press, and overhead press.
Immediately, I bought some Olympic weights and a power rack, and started the program. Remarkably, I experienced very little fatigue and I progressed rapidly.
Where My Strength Is At Now
After four years of serious lifting, I’ve graduated to an intermediate level. I can deadlift 300 pounds, bench press 185, squat 195 and press 105.
But the big question is “am I younger?” Well, I’m stronger than I was before I got sick 30 years ago. So, I guess strength-wise I’m younger.
What About HIIT
Because of my past history of CFS I’m a little apprehensive of doing a strict HIIT program. However, lifting heavy weight for 5–8 reps is a sure fire way to get your heart rate in the zone. So I’m sure I’m getting some of the benefits of a HIIT workout during my weightlifting sessions.
Are my cells getting younger? I don’t know. But I know this.
Strength training, coupled with a ketogenic diet and daily walking have worked to make me the healthiest and strongest I’ve been in over 30 years.
The Bottom Line
HIIT combined with resistance training is a scientifically proven anti-aging strategy. Experientially, I can attest to that fact.
You’ve heard it said, “Just do it”.
This story originally appeared in The Gluten Free Homestead