This is Your Life

(Your) 50s

May 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

59: James Dukes, cyclist, judoist, and rock climber: "You can't depend on discipline to stay in good shape—it has to be fun."

DUNCAN HOWAT DIDN'T START ROWING until he was 54. But not long after settling into a scull, the 58-year-old general manager of Mt. Baker Ski Area, in Washington, realized a couple of things: He'll never again have a 25-year-old's engine, but someday he could have an Olympian's stroke. "I asked myself, How do I best offset the effects of aging?" recalls Howat. "Emphasize technique to the maximum."

The Bad News By your sixth decade of activity, it's time to take an age-related reality check. You'll still be able to play outside plenty hard, but after 50 you need biomechanical efficiency to offset natural physical deterioration. To wit, muscle-mass losses can accelerate to 1 percent annually, and bone density can start slipping at a rate of approximately 0.4 percent per year. You'll increasingly struggle to focus clearly on the newspaper as tissue changes in your eyes, and your cardiovascular system will maintain its slow but steady decline.

The Good News A weight-training regimen will prevent peak power from falling dramatically until you're past 60. And as Howat proves, you've still got excellent coordination.
"Compared with the rate of muscle-mass loss, an athlete's loss of kinesthetic awareness (a sense of where and how your body parts move) is quite slow," says Spirduso, who conducted a study of masters rowers in 1998 and found that even into their sixties, the oarsmen posted times that were only 17 percent off world-record marks. Spirduso partially attributes the graybeards' amazing performance to their excellent form.

The Prescription Lifting three times a week can help you avoid losing as much as 15 pounds of muscle mass. Work the whole body: chest, back, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Studies show that in only two months, you'll gain two and a half pounds of muscle and could lose more than four and a half pounds of fat. "Make sure to vary the weights and reps with each workout to prevent your muscles from adapting to the loads," advises William Kramer, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Connecticut. One day, lift heavier weights for six reps. The next, lift lighter loads for 15 reps. The next should be a normal day of pushing out ten reps.Assuming your body's in good shape, there's no medical evidence that says you need to reduce the frequency and duration of longer aerobic workouts. "But slow down, pay close attention to hydration, and be modest about your training intensity," says Walter Bortz, marathoner and co-chair of the American Medical Association Task Force on Aging. "Older runners can run marathons, but they still need to do all the training everyone else does."The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily calcium intake of 1,200 milligrams. Pills aside, swallow three daily servings of leafy green vegetables and dairy products to keep those bones strong.