Is it ever too late to exercise?

Is age-related decline inevitable? And how should we change our training as we age? James Witts investigates…

It's never too late to exercise but there are some changes you'll need to make to your programming to reduce the risk of injury and maintain performance

Stark facts: after 30, your VO2max drops by around 10% each decade, while muscular strength decreases, too. Why’s down to numerous reasons, one of the major factors being nerve loss, which then kills off muscle fibres.


Research has shown that the vastus medialis muscle in your thigh contains around 800,000 fibres at 20; by 60, it’ll nestle at 250,000. On average, we lose 8% of muscle fibres between 40 and 50. It’s a dismal picture. Or it would be if you didn’t train and, more importantly, adapt your training.

How to increase lean muscle mass

The hormone testosterone preserves and increases lean muscle mass; improves cognitive function; increases bone density so preventing conditions like osteoporosis; and improves your ability to recover from a workout.

The problem is, from the age of around 30, testosterone levels begin to drop. This is compounded by long endurance sessions, which decrease levels further. That’s why weight training’s so important to the older triathlete.

Unlike endurance training, weight work raises testosterone levels. It’s recommended those over 50 should split between 80% tri training and 20% weights. When it comes to exercises, engaging the major muscle groups elicits greatest testosterone release, so squats are essential.

Stretching muscles is key

As you age, it’s natural for intensity to drop off in lieu of volume; in other words, longer and slower. All training counts but the problem is, not only do the ageing athlete’s muscle fibres die off, the fast-twitchers disappear faster.

That’s why you need to stretch – and retain – them by ensuring you train two or three times a week above 80% of maximum heart rate. This’ll result in shorter training sessions but higher weekly intensity.

Set a good sleep routine

Those of you over 50 know recovery takes longer. So ensure sufficient sleep by setting a sleep routine, cutting out stimulants and banishing smartphones from the bedroom. Compression socks and regular massage will also accelerate recovery.

As for nutrition, the key advice is around protein, which should increase to preserve muscle mass, rising from 20-25g protein to 30-40g. This maximises protein synthesis.


Top image: Getty Images