I get asked all the time about how to retain health and fitness as you get older and avoid injury. It’s a big topic and comes with a great deal of misunderstood beliefs. In this blog I’m going to address these beliefs and give you some great ideas to keep kicking arse at 80. But first here’s a little background.
The story of Myelin
Have you noticed how babies move slowly and with somewhat jerky movements but gradually begin to refine and refine until they’ve mastered everything that you and I take for granted. For example, whilst my two year old daughter can feed herself extremely well now, she still has a long way to go in refining that task before I’ll be willing to let her loose without the bib! The movements are still a little jerky and half the food still falls into her lap or gets pushed off the side of the plate.
It may appear that she doesn’t much care for table manners but the truth is, her nervous system is incapable of doing any better right now, despite her best efforts.
It’s all to do with something called myelin. Uh oh, here comes the sciencey bit…
There are two main processes that develop – 1. Neural Connection, where two or more neurons in the nervous system attach to form a circuit, and 2. Myelination, a process where a type of insulation tape gets wrapped around the Axon (to keep it simple, think of the Axon as the wire and the neuron as the connection at each end).
You might think that it is only the connections that make a circuit that are important, but actually the wire quality between connections is just as crucial in making things work efficiently. Fortunately, we are able to upgrade our wires by insulating them. We call this insulation Myelin. The more insulation we have the faster the wire can transfer an impulse.
So as my two year old made the connection to scoop food with a spoon, rather than just randomly waving the spoon around, she had only made a crude circuit. With practice, she has begun to lay more and more Myelin around the wire and refine that circuit to more accurately pick up food and get it in her mouth.
Myelin only gets laid down if you practice firing the nerve. If you don’t practice firing the nerve, myelin begins to get removed. And if you don’t practice for long enough, then the nervous system may even choose to disconnect the circuit altogether and use it to make new circuits.
Now for the kicker
At the other end of life, actually throughout adulthood, Myelin production slows down. This gets compounded by the fact that we may also become less active. As myelin production slows it starts to affect the speed at which our wires fire impulses. This can be clearly seen by looking at elderly people and how slowly they move compared to their younger days.
So in essence, you start slow and jerky in life, speed up and refine movement, then become slow and jerky again later in life.
Don’t hang up your gloves just yet!
Okay, now I’ve given you a depressing look over the edge and into the abyss, I’m going to grab you by the shoulders and turn your back to it. It’s time to take a positive look at what you can do to push back on Mother Nature.
I may have painted a picture that myelin degeneration is a one way ticket to slow down but I did so to grab your attention. It is only a one way ticket IF you don’t do something about it.
Many people believe that old age is an inevitable path to this abyss. Probably because they watched their parents slow down, ending up sitting watching daytime TV all day until both their body and mind turned to mush.
People often fear old age because this seems like the only outcome. But that’s why I started with the boring Sciencey bit. Let me explain.
It’s never too late
Remember that myelin gets laid down when we practice tasks. And when we stop practicing tasks it stops getting laid down. So if you want to slow down the inevitable “age related slow down” then you have to keep practicing tasks.
Simply put, as soon as you start becoming more physically and mentally active, you’ll start to lay down myelin again – just at a slower pace than in your 20s.
If you haven’t had an active lifestyle in many years, by which I mean partaking in vigorous exercise of your body and mind, then now is the right time to rebuild your myelin stores.
With consistency you can begin to reverse the effects of myelin slow down. But it must be consistent. You don’t get myelin lay down with a few days of activity here and there. It’s about finding something you enjoy doing that challenges you and sticking with it.
4 ideas to stimulate myelin reserves
#1: Get out of breath. To get out of breath you have to move lots of parts of your body in ways you aren’t currently used to. This could be as simple as going for a brisk walk. You’ll be moving your limbs faster than usual, which makes you fire nerves more strongly and they will have to adapt by laying down myelin. You may only be able to walk briskly for 100m at first if your fitness is low, but that’s fine and very normal. You’ll soon adapt to 100m of brisk walking and when you do, you can add a little more distance to it, like doing 110m and so on.
#2: Start a simple bodyweight exercise programme at home. Try a routine like squatting in and out of a chair 15 times, holding the Plank position against the dining table for 20 seconds and holding a Long Leg Bridge for 20 seconds with your hands and feet pressing firmly into the floor. A simple routine like this will make you work almost all of the muscles in your body. Repeat every other day to start with and try to find your personal rep or time range that suits. You may need to start with 5 squats and a 10-second plank and bridge hold. That’s fine. Just challenge yourself and add more when you can.
#3: Go to dance or fitness classes. Dancing is a great activity to challenge coordination, fitness and memory. It can give you many of the things you need to stimulate myelin growth. If doing dance rather than fitness classes, then I’d just add the chair squat (from option 1) as a home exercise to enable a more rounded programme because dance rarely includes this squatting movement unless you’re getting really advanced.
#4: Learn something new. Mental activity needs work just as much as physical activity. It is all myelin, whether in your muscles or within your brain. Learning new movements, like a dance routine, stimulates myelin in your memory circuits, but if you choose to do options #1 or #2 then you’ll need to add in a crossword, a really good novel or learn a new skill like needlework, woodwork or cooking, for example, to stimulate myelin in the brain. Being mentally active has good scientific evidence showing it can stave off dementia too.
Age Related Slow Down, whilst an unfortunate part of the life experience, can be managed. There is really no need to find yourself stuck in a self lifting chair watching daytime TV like your parents or grandparents. If you decide to challenge yourself you can slow down the “slow down”. It really is never too late.
People in their 80s and 90s that are fit and bright-minded are always the ones that refuse to slow down. They eat good food and exercise their body and mind. Those that don’t, have a very different life experience. Which would you choose?