In January 2013, LA Fitness did a survey of 2,000 people asking them what their New Year’s Resolutions were. The top answers were:
1. Read more books
2. Save more money
3. Lose weight
5. Take better photos
The conclusion was that life is so hectic that we’re trying to set aside time for ourselves, our friends and our families rather than impose a regime of fitness training that adds to our busy-ness.
Hidden away in the figures, though, was something that seemed to be contradictory: ⅔ of people wanted to improve their fitness in the coming year. They just didn’t want to make a resolution that they knew that wouldn’t keep to (after all, according the Guardian newspaper, 78% of people don’t stick to their New Year resolutions).
So if you’ve made a decision to ease into, or gently to up your game at sport, exercise, jogging, cycling, swimming or whatever – let me give you some gentle encouragement.
If you’re in your 20’s:
For those of us who’ve lost our immortality and begun to realise that we can’t do everything we used to be able to without suffering the consequences, we need to plan a bit to avoid injuring ourselves and possibly doing permanent damage.
The sad truth is that as the decades pass, the body’s ability to heal itself slows down. The key age is 40 – so if you’re in your 30’s, read on and plan ahead. For those of us that are already there, understanding what’s happening to our bodies can help us make sure that we get and stay fit – it’s the long game rather than the quick-fix New Year Resolution.
Despite being hard, bones are living tissue which continually renew themselves through a process called ossification.
Cells called osteoclasts eat away old bone, then groups of cells called osteoblasts form new bone. This happens on a continuous cycle throughout our lifetime.
The trouble is that from the age of 40 that process of bone regeneration slows down. New healthy bone is still being created, but at a progressively slower rate. So the bones of a 45 year-old are more brittle than the bones of a 35 year-old; the bones of a 55 year-old are more brittle than those of a 45-year old, and so on.
So if you’re approaching , or are over, 40 and haven’t run for a while then deciding to get back into it and do two 5-mile runs a week, isn’t a great idea. Why?
One of the important jobs of muscles in your lower half is to act as shock absorbers - as your foot hits the ground, the shock spirals up the muscles of your leg & torso and is dissipated.
The muscles act to protect your joints (especially your knee joint) from force that’s around 1½ times your body weight with each step.
If you haven’t exercised for a while, you won't have much muscle mass, so the muscles won’t be able to absorb that shock, and you’re more susceptible to damaging your bones.
Because your rate of bone regeneration (ossification) has slowed, any damage from the shock spiralling up your body won’t be repaired as quickly.
So when you run a few days later, you’re adding shock force to bones which may not yet have fully healed from last time.
The problem keeps compounding itself every time you run.
The answer? Build up your muscles mass so that your shock absorbers can cope with the force – that way you won’t damage your bones in the first place.
Guess what though? Yep, from age 40 onwards, muscle mass starts to decline too.
From 40 to around 50, muscle mass decreases at around 1% a year. From 50 upwards, the decline in muscle mass picks up speed. By the time you’re 80 you could easily find that you’ve got 50% less muscle mass than you had at age 40.
In other words, the older you are, the more you need to work on building up muscle mass to counter the decline!
So back to that resolution: if you’re one of the ⅔ of people that want to improve their fitness in this new year, don’t make it resolution to go for it. Much better to see it as a year-long project, so that by this time next year you’re fitter than you are now.
Take it easy, start slow and gentle – whatever your sport, whether it’s tennis, running or the gym. Make sure you take the time to build up your muscles, so that they’re able to cope with the force that you’re putting on your bones and joints.
Play the long game, and by this time next year, you really will be fitter and healthier.