The more work capacity we have prior to middle age, the greater the hedge we have against loss of capacity. The less initial work capacity we have, the more obvious age-based changes will be.
Our premise is that although we can’t stop getting older, we can minimize the degree to which age-based changes limit our lives. Understanding the aging process is the first step in learning what is possible for an older athlete. The trainer needs to be well equipped with accurate information to promote successful aging and challenge any self-imposed limitations older clients may place upon themselves. The trainer also plays a key role in breaking down societal prejudices in relation to masters athletes and physical training, and deep knowledge is essential to be successful in doing so. If we look to the research on aging, there is general agreement on the types of changes that occur but less certainty about the timing and extent of the changes. Although the changes will happen to all of us, not everyone is affected to the same degree.
Some people remain fit, healthy and functional well into old age, whereas others descend into decrepitude during middle age. What is clear is that we share a common goal, which is to defy the aging process and push the changes associated with aging as far as possible into the future. There is concord in the research that maximizing fitness throughout the lifespan is the best defense against the effects of aging. This also makes intuitive sense. The more work capacity we have prior to middle age, the greater the hedge we have against loss of capacity. The less initial work capacity we have, the more obvious age-based changes will be.
The Physiological Effects of Aging:
o Reduced testosterone in men
o Reduced estrogen and progesterone in women (menopause)
o Decreased insulin sensitivity (particularly if overweight)
Immune system changes
o Inflammation increases
o Immune function decreases
o More susceptible to illness
o Bone mineral density decreases
o Reduction in joint mobility
o Onset of osteoarthritic processes
o Decrease in muscle function
o Reduction in Type II muscle fibers
Reduced stamina and cardiovascular respiratory endurance
o Cardiac, vascular and pulmonary functions decline
o Reduction in aerobic capacity and VO2 max (O2 uptake)
o Decrease in maximal heart rate and cardiac stroke volume
Reduced elasticity of skin and blood vessels
o Skin becomes dry and susceptible to tearing
o Reduced peripheral blood flow
o Reduced ability for skin to repair
Capacity to recover from injury or illness decreases
o Increase in tendon stiffness
o Reduced peripheral blood flow
o Slower collagen replacement impacts wound healing
The Psychological and Neurological Effects of Aging
o Hearing, taste and eyesight decline
o Decreased ability to thermoregulate
o Thirst mechanism becomes less sensitive
o More susceptible to dehydration
Neurological capacity impaired
o Reduction in coordination, accuracy, agility and balance
o Reduction in fine motor skills and proprioception
o Increased fall risk
o Loss of nerve tissue and peripheral nerve function
o Reduced neuroplasticity
o Reduced ability to learn neurological skills
o Increased problem-solving skills with greater life experience
o More prone to overthinking
o Seeking more purposeful life
o Changes in what is meaningful
o Changes to the family unit
o Career changes and transition to retirement
The degree to which these changes result in functional decline is more a result of lifestyle factors than age. It is most likely that the effects of aging are accelerated and amplified by poor lifestyle and/or inactivity. Individuals who have remained active, have good nutrition and avoid known risk factors (like smoking and alcohol) delay and minimize the effects of aging (Ferdows et al., 2018). When we consider masters CrossFit Games athletes, the positive effects of continued training are pronounced. Therefore, there is a strong argument that a healthy and active lifestyle delays and offsets the effects of aging. It can be argued that masters athletes in all sports are the exemplars of successful aging (Geard et al., 2017).
The medical literature will change over time with the inclusion of an ever-growing CrossFit population that is healthier and fitter than their non-training peers. What does this mean for the trainer? In an untrained or poor lifestyle client, the trainer needs to be sensitive to the above age-related changes and anticipate possible issues created by those changes.
However, in the trained client with a good lifestyle, the changes will be less pronounced, and unless there is an obvious limitation, such a person should not have a strong need to modify the program. Age-related changes exist on a continuum, and the degree to which changes have occurred will dictate the degree to which the program will require modification. Once again, it means that age alone is a poor guide for the trainer, and we should not assume functional decline is inevitable at a particular age.