Updated: Oct 29, 2022
Most would be happy with a “life expectancy" of 90-100. However, I believe what people are really after is having a long “health span”. Unfortunately, these metrics rarely line up considering the average.
According to Tim Peterson, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at Washington University, “Many might agree that “health span” can be defined as the period of one’s life that one is healthy. However, being “healthy” means different things to different people. A better definition might include being free from serious disease.” Such diseases include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, breast cancer, alzheimer’s.
To raise the bar on this rather depressing definition of just “being free from serious disease”, I suggest it's more useful to focus on how exercise (the most powerful intervention against all of the above diseases) can vastly increase and expand our “health span” to include vitality and independence.
To add to my perspective, to me a long health span comes down to having the freedom to physically do what I want to as I age, especially in the last decade of my life (I still plan on being a gym rat, maybe just a little smaller and slower rat:)
I also feel that when we look at "health span" through the lens of fitness, it perhaps lends a bit more sense of control to the aging process, as it now becomes more actionable.
This brings us to the term “backcasting” coined by Dr. Peter Attia (his podcast inspired me to write this post and I highly recommend his content). In a nutshell, "backcasting" means thinking ahead and making a list of all the physical tasks or activities you still want to be able to do or enjoy in your 80’s and 90’s. Some examples could include gardening, carrying 30 pounds of groceries home from the store, walking up several flights of stairs, getting off the floor unassisted, walking 3 miles, jogging a mile, playing with grandkids, hiking with your dog.
Once you have a list of activities that are important to you, the next step is working backwards, or reverse engineer how a fitness routine could specifically support and build capacity in those activities now. Part of this fitness plan would be to simply continue doing these activities as much as you can on a daily basis, such as gardening, walking, taking the stairs etc. Other activities would be best augmented in the gym by mimicking them with resistance training exercises or cardio training. This would build more of a reserve against future decline as we age. (See my top 10 for more clarity and specific examples).
Another takeaway I got from the Dr. Attia podcast, and I am paraphrasing here is“if you want to be exceptional in your 90’s, you can’t be average now”. Meaning, if you are in your 40’s or 50’s and are having trouble walking up a flight of stairs or reaching down to touch your toes to tie your shoe’s, what are the chances that you will be able to do similar tasks decades later? (by the way both of these examples are totally manageable with a little effort:)
If this last point was a bit blunt or unsettling, I apologize. However on the flip side, because physical activity is arguably the most powerful intervention against serious diseases, IMHO its also the lowest hanging fruit we have based on its actionability and it's within our control.
Yes, I'm aware that genetics, socioeconomic, cultural, and environmental factors are also at play here, that said, physical activity is one of the strongest levers we can pull to reduce risk of dying early. So why not do our best to stay fit now, while we still can?
The good news is that it's NEVER too late to start exercising, and there is a ton of evidence showing that even modest improvements in fitness has a drastic impact on improving health outcomes. From a motivational standpoint (especially for those that struggle with staying consistent), it's important that you actually see results when you put the effort and time in. This makes choosing the correct things to do in the gym critically important from a results and efficiency standpoint. Which brings me to the list of top 10 gym exercises I do myself and bring my clients through on a weekly basis.
There is no better exercise for building strength, muscle mass, and bone density.
Same as above. Both the squat and deadlift should be trained on a weekly basis.
Push-ups, not the most exciting exercise but has tremendous value
Safer on shoulders and integrates more core than bench press. Also provides practice for lifting yourself off the ground
Seated Rows, One of the best exercise for shoulder health
DB rows and bent over rows are also great. Some coaches say "you can't do enough horizontal rowing"
Improves core, mobility, stability, coordination, strength, balance. The best exercise for maintaining your ability to get off the ground
Lunges or Step-up variations
Single leg stance work is great for improving balance, foot stability and mobility.
Farmer's carry, suitcase carries, waiters walk, goblet carries are all gold for building grip strength, core, and overall work capacity.
Vertical Pulling and/or Hanging
Gluteus max is the biggest and most important muscle in hip extension (think jumping, running, or just keeping us upright)
There you have it, my top 10 gym exercises I feel have the most impact fending off Father Time. Before my inbox gets flooded with comments cursing at me saying "what about cardio?" Yes, cardio is critically important, as well as mobility and soft tissue work for regulating aches and pains. These however will be included in my next post: Top 10 exercises to do away from the gym to be fit in your 90's.
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Thanks for reading. If you, or someone you know, needs help setting up a plan with these exercises, either in the gym or online, please reach out. I specialize in helping busy professionals over 40 get fit without burning out. My personal training studio services downtown Toronto and is just steps away from the UP train at Union Station.