Lessons of the Third Age …

Gayle’s Uncle Kel is a bike rider. I last caught up with him two or three years ago when he passed through Maryborough on the Great Victorian Bike Ride. That’s a multi day event that takes a different route each year. Completion is quite an achievement at any age let alone for a nonagenarian. Kel is 95 now and still riding. I’m hoping he will find the time to contribute a guest blog at some point.

For my parentsĀ  and most of their generation physical activity at an advanced age was virtually unthinkable. Sports rarely lasted beyond school age. Old age began at retirement. The boomers saw things differently and perhaps for the first time since the agricultural revolution a good proportion of them participated in exercise for an extended period. First we had the jogging boom and then the triathlon boom and now we’re chugging into retirement but not quite ready to accept old age. It’s the Third Age, a concept that’s been around since about 1990, a period of health, leisure, personal fulfillment and independence. Amen.

The Fourth Age, of course, starts where the healthspan stops. Just as your body weight is part good – bones, muscles, brain – and part just baggage your lifespan consists of a healthspan plus a period of frailty and dependence.

The most pertinent lessons of the Third Age are :-

  • It’s better than what comes next.
  • It’s worth the effort to extend it.

Mens sana in corpore sano is not a new concept. The modern translation could easily be “Use it or lose it”.

So how will the elderly body respond to the indignity of unaccustomed exercise?


Muscle dysfunction and associated mobility impairment, common among the frail elderly, increase the risk of falls, fractures, and functional dependency. We sought to characterize the muscle weakness of the very old and its reversibility through strength training. Ten frail, institutionalized volunteers aged 90 +/- 1 years undertook 8 weeks of high-intensity resistance training. Initially, quadriceps strength was correlated negatively with walking time (r = -.745). Fat-free mass (r = .732) and regional muscle mass (r = .752) were correlated positively with muscle strength. Strength gains averaged 174% +/- 31% (mean +/- SEM) in the 9 subjects who completed training. Midthigh muscle area increased 9.0% +/- 4.5%. Mean tandem gait speed improved 48% after training. We conclude that high-resistance weight training leads to significant gains in muscle strength, size, and functional mobility among frail residents of nursing homes up to 96 years of age.

Even in the fourth age the muscles still respond. The authors of the study go on to say …

The major finding of the study is that a high-intensity weight-training program is capable of inducing dramatic increases in muscle strength in frail men and women up to 96 years of age. The increase in lower-extremity strength ranged from 61% to 374% over baseline,with subjects demonstrating a threefold to fourfold increase on average in as little as 8 weeks. Because muscle strength decreases by perhaps 30% to 40% during the course of the adult life
span it is likely that at the end of training these subjects were stronger than they had been many years previously.

Shame they didn’t start sooner. The institution where that research was conducted now offers its residents Restorative Exercise so if you’re in the vicinity of Boston, Mass and looking for somewhere to spend your dotage hit the link.

I once passed a caravan with a mission statement on the back …

From Here to Dementia

The Last Great Adventure

May the journey be a long one.

So Use It …

Resistance Exercise Training (RET) is good for you.

Muscle mass begins a slow decline from about 30 years of age, accelerating into old age and resulting in sarcopenia for most older people. There is a fair amount of strength in reserve at the beginning of this process but ultimately there may not be enough to cope with daily life activities. Falls and fractures are bad news for the frail elderly.

Good news – old muscles respond to training in just the same way as young ones. For a review of the science regarding RET in older folk see <HERE>.

Key Messages

  • Strength (resistance) training is effective in elderly persons and can be undertaken without notable adverse effects.

  • Strength (resistance) training is subject to a dose-response relation. Higher intensities yield greater effects than low or medium intensities.

  • Strength (resistance) training in elderly persons aims to increase muscle mass (hypertrophy) on the one hand, and on the other hand, promote neuronal adaptation (intermuscular and intramuscular coordination).

If you have despaired at the mythology surrounding diet or cycling be ready to ignore an even greater torrent of nonsense regarding doing weights. High reps, low weights for stamina, low reps very high weights for strength, medium reps medium weights for bulk. It’s all frog shit.

The reality is that the results depend on the intensity and your genes. Light weights and many reps until exhausted will have the same result as heavy weights and few reps until exhausted. The key is the exhaustion. Near exhaustion is very nearly as effective and has a few advantages!

Recovery and avoiding over-training are the other side of the coin. The science to back up these last few paragraphs can be found in a review paper by Morton et al. Their key recommendations include choosing weights that lead to volitional fatigue, three times per week with a total of at least 10 reps per muscle group and not more than 15 sets per muscle group.

And that leaves plenty of scope. I favour beginning with compound exercises such as squats and lat pull-downs, heavy enough so that 10 to 12 is the limit, 2 or 3 sets, followed by 1 set each for whichever individual muscles best serve your vanity. Don’t waste too much time on the biceps it’s the lats and deltoids that make the upper body!

Assembling the Weapon …

The posh name for it these days is Resistance Exercise Training or RET for short. When I was a lad we just called it weight training and it is sometimes referred to as strength training. I have indulged in it for some big chunks of my life sometimes by going to the gym and sometimes by means of a home gym.

One of my sons has a basic set up that he uses to good effect. When I decided to halt my slide into decrepitude I started to make use of his equipment. And then came Covid-19 and the lock down. I decided to buy some equipment of my own. Me and every other like minded person. I hit the web and found a lot of sold out signs but eventually I found machines for sale.

An outfit called Gym and Fitness were happy to take my order and of course my money and promised to pack and ship my machine within days. I enjoyed a state of happy anticipation for about a week. The excuses then started. They were really busy. How awful for a business. Their sales software wasn’t linked to their inventory software. How stupid for a business to be selling machines it didn’t have. The third version was that they never actually stocked this machine in the first place relying on the suppliers to ship it once the order was received. They really don’t belong in business.

They refunded my money. By that stage it was really hard to find a machine but eventually I found the Celsius GS2 from Rebel Sports. Delivery took a while but eventually a number of battered cardboard boxes on a broken pallet made it to my door. The machine had evidently had its first workout in transit. Fortunately the damage was only to the cosmetics.

Putting it together was the next challenge. The instructions for the frame were pretty good. Finding the parts was the hardest bit but of course that got easier as the job progressed. Fitting the cables was a different story. I think a different team had written the instructions for that phase. The instruction booklet showed the cables in a different configuration than they were supplied but there were only five and eventually they were sorted out.

The machine is working well. The cables run smoothly and a good variety of exercises are possible.

The Secret Weapon …

Now assembled in one corner of the machinery shed …

One of the Youtubers I follow is Dylan Johnson a cycling competitor and coach. He is a big fan of strength training to help you go faster on your bike.

But he’s just a whipper snapper. Joe Friel in Fast After Fifty is another advocate for the weights. But then from my perspective fifty year olds are also whipper snappers. This guy though seems qualified …

Weight training is one area where researchers have been keen to take older couch potatoes and put them to work. Strength training has major benefits in daily life activities, mood and cognitive abilities and reduction in falls. All of which serve to extend healthy life. But we are aiming higher than that – we want to ride fast.

Dylan has told us why. In the next video he tells us how. I’ll get started as soon as I recover from putting the bloody thing together.