The population is aging at a faster rate than any other time in history. With a greater need to understand how to help older people live independently for as long as possible, the brilliant folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Age Lab invented a suit called AGNES – (Age Gain Now Empathy System),
Put it on and you can get a feeling for what it’s like to live in a body that is 80 years old. Notice how much of what the suit simulates is due to loss of mobility and strength:
- Arms– Bands that connect the arm and waist reduce joint mobility in the shoulders, making it harder to reach above shoulder height.
- Legs– Straps attached to the harness and shoes decrease hamstring flexibility and shortens gait, promoting slower, shorter, leg movements while walking.
- Spine– The helmet and band attachments simulate spinal compression and limit spinal rotation, giving the wearer a sense of curving of the spine that occurs with aging.
- Neck– A neck brace reduces cervical spine rotation and extension, simulating increased stiffness and causing the turning of one’s head to be a full torso movement.
- Eyes– Yellow glasses simulate the natural yellowing of eyes, making it difficult to see contrast and small print, as well as difficulty seeing in low light.
- Ears– Earplugs simulate difficulty with high pitched sounds and soft tones.
- Balance– Custom shoes simulate the changes in our musco-skeletal system and inner ear that occurs with age, causing imbalance and giving us a feeling of uncertainty with each step.
- Hands– Gloves and braces simulate the reduced tactile sensation as well as decreased wrist strength and mobility.
Other research on aging shows the loss of mobility and strength with aging is largely preventable and reversible for people who ‘use it’.1
Normal aging is not normal, it’s the disuse in aging that has become ‘normal’.
How can we let something so preventable happen so easily? Because when it comes to the principle of ‘use it or lose it’, we have lost sight of the details. Your body specifically gets used to what you give it and specifically loses what you don’t use.
Use it to keep it is the key to aging well
For example, getting 10,000 steps a day, although connected to being healthy, will not tell your body you want to keep your mobility and strength. We call it aging but really it is gradual de-conditioning from disuse and that loss of ability slowly takes the motivation to move along with it. It’s a largely preventable downward spiral when we know how to use it to keep it.
Here are the details that matter in the ‘use it to keep it’ principle upon which your body is designed:
#1: Use it: What exactly is the “it’ you are using?
Over-using part of the body will speed up the aging process. For example, using back muscles to hold your body up while hunched over your laptop or phone for hours at a time is asking this part of your body to do something it was not meant to do and it will wear down quicker than usual. Sitting and standing in alignment lines up your bones so your muscles don’t have to do nearly as much work to hold you up, which slows their ‘normal’ aging.
Misusing parts of the body will also speed up the aging process. For example, using your core muscles to do sit-ups and planks means your core is not going to know it is part of movements like lifting a heavy box or putting an item on a high shelf. Actively teaching your core to support your body to stay in alignment during movements of daily life, and reminding them to do that during a regular functional strength exercise routine will tell them you want them to keep doing their job for many years to come.
#2: Keep it: What exactly is the “it” you want to keep?
Unfortunately, general everyday use of your body will not tell it you want to be able to ski, climb, hike, or garden. For the client above, using a mono-ski connects him with nature, his family and a sense of freedom. His exercise routine has specific strength and power exercises to keep his body ready to ski and his motivation high to do them regularly.
We also need to stay aware that doing more of one type of exercise like cardio, even if it burns more calories than stretching, will not tell your body you want to be mobile for a wide range of movements of daily life. The media floods us with exercises that ‘target’ or ‘tone’, yet we need to know these are not likely to help you keep strength for the movements of daily life.
Whatever you want to keep doing into your eighties—travel, or play with kids, or garden —is always a combination of strength, stamina, and mobility. When you use all three in a regular balanced exercise routine, you defy the ‘normal’ aging process. This bring us to the detail that makes ‘keeping it’ possible.
#3: Using it regularly means keeping it longer.
Seasonal activities are great, but you are guaranteed to lose some of those skills in the off-season. Other seasons of life—like kids growing up, changing jobs, pandemics—all change what we use, so they determine what we keep.
You already know that exercise is important for aging well. It’s no secret. Why then does the aging suit include so many preventable limitations? The missing piece is what makes our brain do something we know is ‘good for us’, like stretching and strength training, on a regular basis. It can be summed up in one word – enjoyment. When each specific type of exercise is something that makes your whole person feel better now, you are on your way to a brighter future.
Bottom line of how to slow normal aging
Exercising to age well boils down to three steps before you even start exercising:
- List all the movements you want to be able to do in order to move with ease and do what you enjoy for as long as possible.
- Choose exercises that support those movements with a balance of exercises for strength, stamina, and mobility.
- Make practicing those movements enjoyable so they leave you feeling better now and your brain wanting you to keep doing them for many decades to come.
Keep that aging suit off your body for as long as you possibly can by embracing the details of ‘use it to keep it’.
- Cartee GD, Hepple RT, Bamman MM, Zierath JR. Exercise Promotes Healthy Aging of Skeletal Muscle. Cell Metab. 2016;23(6):1034-1047. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2016.05.007