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My Fitness Journey through the Ages-Coming Full Circle

Wednesday, December 2, 2021

My journey into an active lifestyle began in elementary school. Our school was fortunate enough to have an incredible full time gym teacher who went above and beyond to encourage his students to participate in extra curricular sports. From grade 6 through high school I spent every morning and after school practicing volleyball, badminton, soccer and track.

It was our high school track coach that introduced me to weight lifting, and being genetically predisposed to developing strength and power, I was hooked! I got my first Weilder bench and free weight set when I was 16 and have, for the most part, resistance trained ever since.

My training evolved through the years with changing fitness trends, goals, learning from mistakes, adapting to injury and aging. My biggest training mistake occurred in my late 30’s. A dedicated gym rat, I trained for an hour and a half daily with mostly spin and step classes and cardio machines with a small volume of high repetition, low load resistance training, in addition to twice weekly competitive volleyball. Looking back, I was doing far too much steady state cardio and volume of cardio for my body, not periodizing (varying training loads) my workouts, spending near enough time resistance training, not lifting heavy enough or taking enough recovery time. I began to experience signs and symptoms of aerobic overtraining… fatigue, diminishing results, unrelenting tiredness in my legs, mental burnout, loss of jumping height and power in my sport, and weight gain. Recognizing this, I took a step back from gym.

Knowing that I still needed to be active, I began twice weekly semi-private Pilates with walking on the other days. It was amazing to me how my body changed in the way it looked and felt by doing less volume (Pilates was still surprisingly intense!) and allowing it to recover, within 3 months of reducing my routine. It was a valuable lesson in balance and the importance of listening to my body. Pilates, being a mind-body discipline, enabled me to become more aware of my body during exercise, and more in tune with it’s needs. Eventually, with more energy and out of my over-trained state, I came full circle back to the physical activity my body responded to the best, weight training. I restarted weight training after a year, and found my perfect balance with a much smarter approach that is right for my body and that I am constantly fine tuning. Turns out my instincts and lessons learned from my mistakes were correct: according to highly respected Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Alwyn Cosgrove in his new book, “Secrets of Successful Program Design” (2020), the science is clear when it comes to training for optimal body composition: weight training, when done at the correct parameters, always results in greater fat loss than aerobic training. While I had many goals with my fitness program, maintaining and improving body composition was my main goal.

I am now well into being considered a master age athlete (35+), and have found over the past 10 years the right mix of physical activity for me: 3-4x weekly lifting sessions that I vary throughout the year to cover muscular endurance, hypertrophy ( muscle building), strength and power. 2-3x/wk I do short “metabolic training” sessions, which is interval training using a variety of exercises and drills. On the other days of the week, I simply make sure I move according to how my body is feeling, whether that be a walk, a hike or trail ride, yoga, Pilates or a session of rock climbing. My goals have evolved. I still want to look fit, but I increasingly am focusing on preventing and slowing the effects fo aging on my body and brain.

It’s a little discouraging to read the research on aging’s effect on our bodies. If left, muscle mass decreases 3-8% per decade after the age of 30, with this rate of decline increasing after age 60. This consequently leads to loss of strength, power and often an increase in body fat percentage which in turn leads to an increased risk of insulin resistance, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, not to mention the loss of function and risk of falls. (Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2004, July; 7(4):-405-410). In particular, there is a selective loss of Type 2, fast twitch muscle fibres, which is what directly results in the loss of muscular strength and power. The good news is that aging does not appear to reduce the ability of our bodies to adapt to resistance training. Research is clear, in fact, that major gains in strength, power, muscle mass, bone density and function can be made in the aging adult! (National Strength and Conditioning Association: Essentials of Strength and Conditioning; 2008, p154-157).

And so, as a “master age athlete”, with 34 years of training under my belt and, lots of mistakes made to learn from, I feel confident in sharing the hacks that have kept me resistance training consistently, getting stronger and my body free of injury from training:

1.Get screened: Many things, such previous injury, repetitive activity and prolonged postures, lead to changes in your movement that increase your risk of future injury. I under go a Functional Movement Screen (either by another practitioner if one is handy, or I video myself) every 3-6 months. There are several research articles on screening movement for injury risk. According to a study published in the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (2010 Jun; 5(2): 47–54. Use of a Functional Movement Screening Tool to Determine Injury Risk in Female Collegiate Athletes, Rita S Chobra et al,) A score of 14 or less on the Functional Movement Screen tool resulted in a 4-fold increase in risk of lower extremity injury in female collegiate athletes participating in fall and winter sports. The screening tool was able to predict injury in female athletes without a history of major musculoskeletal injury such as anterior cruciate ligament rupture. The screen tells me what I need to modify in my workouts until I can correct the faulty movement, and repeat screening tells me when I can add that back into my routine with less risk of injury.

2. Respect the recovery process: The magic happens outside of the weight room, when your body adapts to the stresses you put on it. With aging, I have come to learn that I need to respect that my recovery ability is individual and every fluctuating. I have evolved my nutrition to what helps me recover and feel my best. For me that’s excellent quality animal protein, fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, and laying off the grains. For others, it may be a vegan diet. I do believe everyone has a different optimal nutrition plan that their body requires to function optimally. Getting enough sleep is obvious, and one I struggle with more so in my 40s. My biggest recovery strategy hack is lifting slightly lighter for one of every 4 weeks. This, for me at this point, results in continued gains in strength without signs of over training. My lighter weeks entail the same volume (reps and sets) at 80% of the load from previous week. I use to be able to go longer until I needed a recovery week, but have found in the last 5 years this is what works for me.

I also kick myself out of the weight room for the month of August every year. In place, I do more outdoor activities and add some Pilates self practice in addition to the classes I teach. It’s a nice change up in routine, keeps me loving my workouts, and I have never lost strength as a result.

3. Find what your body responds to: For me, it’s combination of weight training and metabolic training intervals with exercises like kettlebell swings, agility ladder drills, and sandbag cleans. I love variety and change. Looking back on my youth, it makes sense that my body responds to this type of training-I was always naturally powerful and strong. Some feel and look amazing with mostly aerobic exercise, I am not one of those individuals. What matters is that you are moving vigorously, you enjoy it, and that you are consistent over time. The last thing you want to do is make physical activity a miserable chore…you will require an incredible amount of willpower to stick with it!

4. Prepare ahead of time: I have always said, the hardest part of working out is putting on your running shoes!! I set my workout gear out on my dresser the night before, and I I literally get out of bed and put my workout gear on before I even have time to think about it!!

5. Footwear is everything, don’t buy crap!: I recently visited a chiropodist and it was worth every penny of the $90 I spent!! Spend the money to get your feet assessed and learn what footwear best suits you. Knowing I have high arches and a very mobile foot, I had been wearing motion control shoes, but began experiencing foot pain that mechanically didn’t add up. Turns out the shoe type I was using was correct, but the particular model was designed for someone much heavier than me. In the correct shoes, I feel like a million bucks!!

6. Get coached!! Some exercises are fairly straight forward and easy to learn if you have decent athletic ability. 2 that I find most folks do terribly incorrect are the deadlift and kettlebell swing. When I first discovered the deadlift, I attempted to self learn but recognized that this was a lift that required coaching. It was at my Strength and Conditioning Certification Course that I truly developed exceptional technique. It took a highly experienced coach to take me through the steps and cues with a stick over the course of about 20 min for me to experience the movement as it should feel. It didn’t take long, I just needed the feedback to know how the correct movement felt for me to go back to my home gym and begin to load the new movement pattern.

7. Find your best time of day: Everyone’s clock is different. I am an early bird, and feel my best throughout the day when I start my day with physical activity. My daughter, on the other hand, could do a vigorous workout at 9pm feeling full of energy. Finding your best time will make it much easier to stick to a program.

8. Find a sound program to stick to: Because I design my own programs, as well as my husbands and daughters, I am completely guilty of not finding time to design my next workout phase and winging it. Doesn’t work, ever. I recommend seeking a sound program from a kinesiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach or certified personal trainer. I am currently using the templates from Alwyn’s new book, Secrets of Successful Program Design, A How-To Guide for Busy Fitness Professionals (Alwyn Cosgrove, Craig Rasmussen, 2020) for my own workouts, as well as those I design for my family and clients. Both Alwyn and his wife Rachel have published several books for those without a professional background that are balanced and use science in their approach.

9. Realize that no amount of working out can counteract a crappy diet: When it comes to body composition, your diet is still key. You will not recovery properly if the building blocks you are providing are crap.

10. Pain is not something that is to be worked through in the weight room: Feeling muscle fatigue and burning, great!! Sharp pain in a joint, tendon or muscle is only going to change your movement in ways that you won’t even notice. Your body is incredible at compensating!! If you are experiencing pain, check your form and or lighten your load and see if that makes a difference. If it doesn’t, ditch that exercise for that workout and find a substitute. If you are finding you are experiencing pain again with that exercise, or outside of the weight room after 72 hours, see a health care practitioner. The earlier pain is managed, the less compensation results.

I am lucky to have developed the habit of fitness at a young age. I can’t imagine my life without it. I am sure my goals will continue to evolve as time goes on, but am setting my sights on defying the natural aging process in any healthy way I can.