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Joe Friel wants you to stay young forever. The 71-year-old fitness guru has spent decades studying the effects of exercise on the body’s aging process and has devised a plan for turning back the clock — or at least slowing it down a bit. Spoiler alert: It’s all about intensity.

This sort of thing is always welcomed news when the longevity formula includes stuff you’re already doing, like avoiding martinis before lunch, but it’s less appealing when the prescription calls for real behavior change. Still, the whole idea that decrepitude is not necessarily inevitable as you shuffle through Geezerville does offer some hope for a future that does not require the ability to navigate a wheelchair ramp.

Short Bursts, Big Pro-aging Gains

Nick Heil, writing in a recent issue of Outside, explores Friel’s latest book, Fast After 50, and comes away encouraged by the notion that we have a lot more control over our fitness as we age than we may think. He indicts all the usual suspects in our general physical decline — less aerobic capacity, more body fat, disappearing muscle mass, decreasing mobility — but quotes Friel’s research findings as evidence that such decline is far from inevitable:

“There is reason to believe that the major contributor to the performance decline in athletes as they get older is nurture, with nature playing a smaller role. As we age, exercise behavior (nurture) appears to play a significant role in how our given genetic biology (nature) plays out.”

The older we get, the less we’re drawn to the kind of high-intensity activities — sprinting, weightlifting, speedskating — that push our heart rates into the stratosphere, but that’s exactly what Friel says it takes to trigger the “adaptive physiological changes” that slow the aging process. It also may be exactly what it takes to bring on a heart attack.

This geezer has shut down more than a few workouts in recent years when his body commanded a retreat rather than a frontal assault. Who wants to be rolled out of the gym on a gurney? Though Heil calls this fear “understandable but possibly irrational,” I’m inclined to pay attention when I feel the first twinge in my back when swinging my kettlebell or detect a bit of lightheadedness when folding into downward dog.

What makes Friel’s high-intensity exercise approach possible for old guys like me, though, is that it’s practiced in short bursts and allows for plenty of recovery time. Most important, Friel isn’t looking over my shoulder during my workout, so I get to define what high-intensity means to me.

Most workday mornings, for instance, I climb on my bike and pedal across the Mississippi and up an annoyingly steep hill to my office. The entire trip takes less than 10 minutes, but pushing up that hill gets my heart pumping in a way I suspect Friel would applaud. The same goes for the 10 minutes or so I spend most mornings hoisting my dumbbells or swinging my kettlebell. (A recent Penn State study, by the way, suggests strength training can help the elderly live longer.)

In fact, Friel lists weightlifting as one of the five key lifestyle behaviors that will help us stay fit and vital into our golden years. Strength training, he notes, builds “younger” muscles by boosting the body’s production of growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin growth factor.

He also suggests eating more protein, getting plenty of sleep, using “passive” rather than “active” recovery techniques between workouts (basically doing nothing), and focusing on moderation and consistency in your fitness regimen.

I can get on board with all of that — especially the moderation part. At my age, a little intensity goes a long way.

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