Exercise guidelines from the US Department of Health and Human Services state that an average adult should get at least two and a half hours of exercise in a week to maintain overall good health. However, despite the many health benefits you can get from exercise, many people still struggle to meet this weekly quota, as previously noted. Here Neil Tweedie, The Guardian, reflects on how smart exercise keeps you younger for longer:
“Slow down, that used to be the mantra for middle age. The dread half-century reached, fiftysomethings were expected to take up less challenging physical activities – if they were physical at all. A gentle stroll around the golf course, perhaps, rewarded with a gin and tonic at the 19th hole; or membership of the local bowling club, blazered crown green rather than 10-pin.
Physical decline as the body aged was inevitable, something to be grumbled about, accepted and dealt with. That fundamental law has not changed, but the way we manage ageing has. Getting older need not mean getting weaker, at least not until the end is truly nigh.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” advises Dylan Thomas. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thomas raged over a pint pot, but the rage in this case is high-intensity training, bursts of challenging – yes, painful – exercise interspersed with periods of lesser exertion and rest. We should all be doing this in our later years, except for those whose health makes such exertion dangerous.
It is not ageing that causes a decline in fitness; rather, that a decline in fitness causes ageing. This is the simple thesis of Play On: How to Get Better with Age by the American journalist and sports fan Jeff Bercovici.
Bercovici, a sometime amateur soccer player, seeks to dispel conventional wisdom about longevity: that life is essentially a dispiriting linear process in which the human machine gradually winds down, clogging here and rusting there before falling into decrepitude. Instead, he argues, we can not only extend our lives by occasionally punishing our bodies but extend our “peak years” of fitness into the autumn and winter of existence. Functionality, rather than a long lifespan, is what matters.
To do this, he examines the lives of sportsmen and women whose fitness regime has allowed them to keep performing at the top level into their 30s. Like Roger Federer, 36, the Swiss tennis player who many would say is the greatest exponent of his sport in history, and Serena Williams, his female opposite number, also 36. Beneficiaries of the latest findings in sports science and medicine, these athletes lead the way on a journey that we can all follow, at whatever level of performance.
The buzz technique that has gained favour is high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in which bursts of intense activity – such as sprinting and cycling – are interspersed with periods of lower-intensity exercise. You know you are at high intensity when muscles burn and you get out of breath. In other words, it hurts.
“Ageing science supports that we should do high intensity every week, getting your heart rate up to at least 80% of its maximum,” says Bercovici. “Even 10 or 20 minutes a week will produce results – that means getting up to the point where it feels unpleasant. It should be a feeling that you can’t keep this up much longer.
“High intensity activates different pathways in your body, with benefits at the cellular level. Together with gentler exercise, it improves overall fitness. The trick is getting the balance: say, 20% high to 80% low.”
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