Health / Older Adult Fitness

Here’s How Aging May Affect Your Endurance

Like muscle, endurance tends to decrease with age—but here’s how you can try to reverse the process.

You might assume that once you’ve passed a certain age, hitting your personal best during exercise is a thing of the past. Physical performance does tend to decrease over time. However, similar to the loss of muscle mass as you age, you can still find ways to stay fit. You can find ways to better manage day-to-day movement. And ways to lower your risk for heart disease, obesity, and osteoporosis. Here’s how age affects endurance, what muscles may be more prone to fatigue, and why regular workouts serve as your secret weapon for turning back the clock.

How does aging impact endurance levels?

“Muscle strength is well preserved up to about the age of 45. Aging can cause a deterioration of five percent in performance per decade thereafter,” explains Dr. Susan Fu, director of rehabilitation services at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. “Our skeletal muscles are composed of two types of muscle: Type 1 (slow twitch fibers) and Type 2 (fast twitch fibers). Research shows that both types of fibers decline with age. However, there’s a greater result in the degeneration of the Type 2 fibers. The result of this loss of lean muscle tissue is sarcopenia, the reduction in muscle fiber size, fiber number, or a combination of the two.”

Aaptiv Trainer Candice Cunningham says that as we age our muscles experience atrophy. However, muscle function also decreases. This, in turn, affects strength and output related to physical performance. Additionally, studies indicate that our bodies use oxygen less efficiently over the years. This decreases our ability to maintain aerobic fitness. Exercise can improve endurance for older adults, as found by one study of competitive endurance athletes. But researchers argue that there are some elements to aging, like how we use oxygen, that can’t necessarily be turned around.

“The aging process for both men and women show a gradual decrease in endurance, strength, and flexibility,” adds Dr. Chris Wolf, a Missouri-based sports medicine and regenerative orthopedic specialist.This loss of endurance can be seen by people as a decrease in tolerance and performance of their fitness pursuits. To minimize it, one should participate in regular exercise, eat a proper diet, and maintain a healthy weight.”

Are certain muscles or body parts more prone to fatigue with age?

“Smaller muscle groups are most susceptible to fatigue,” says Cunningham. “The larger muscles we have, like glutes, and really anything in our posterior chain, will atrophy less. There [are] more of them. However, some upper body muscles like triceps, delts, and rhomboids all can atrophy, too. [This] can lead to posture issues.”

Posture, says Chiropractor Dr. David Shapiro, directly impacts oxygen flow and stamina. “Our upper spine, the area that surrounds the lungs, usually changes in shape as we age,” he describes. “This change in shape is typically called thoracic hyperkyphosis, increased upper back curve. The upper back typically increases in curve by ten degrees by 60 years of age. In addition, as we age, all our spinal ligaments typically become stiff. [They] lose the elasticity of our youth. This combination of spinal deformity and ligament rigidity has been demonstrated in research to decrease our lung capacity. Thus [it] has a negative impact on endurance and strength.”

How can you maintain or improve endurance as you age?

According to Cunningham, signs of lower endurance can pop up in seemingly small, everyday ways. For example, maybe you’re not able to walk or run as much as you used to. Or you start to notice that activities like playing with young family members, gardening, or doing housework all feel more challenging. But, prioritizing a consistent workout routine and a balanced diet can help minimize endurance loss.

Luckily, both strength training and cardio fit the bill. A 2014 study found strength training to be an effective intervention to improve power output alongside muscle strength and muscle mass. It especially helped when done two times a week at moderate- to high-intensity for about 25-40 minutes. Aerobic exercise, such as cycling or walking, additionally lowers your body’s resting heart rate. It reduces blood pressure and boosts your heart’s ability to get oxygenated blood to your muscles.

“The beauty of the human body is that older people have the same ability to respond to strength and endurance training as young people in their twenties [and] thirties,” concludes Dr. Fu. “Endurance and strength training in the aging skeletal system has a profound positive effect to induce changes in body fat, lean muscle mass, and cardiovascular fitness. Endurance training can alter, slow down, or even partially reverse age-related physiological changes. And counteract the risk of back pain, cancer, heart disease, obesity, and osteoporosis. Finally, an active lifestyle allows us to gracefully age, improve our quality of life, and remain active in our community.”

Health Older Adult Fitness

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