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Jim Vranas isn’t the kind of guy who just sits around. The 82-year-old World War II veteran and scientific glassblower (he made the first glass model of the DNA molecule) has always been on the go. That is, until about a month after his retirement 10 years ago. “One morning I got up and tried to put on my socks, and I couldn’t do it. I realized that, over time, my energy level and mood had dropped from a 10 to a 3, and I felt too stiff to move,” he says.

What Vranas was experiencing was a loss of his body’s ability to maintain muscle mass and range of motion, and to fend off the added pounds that result from a too-sedentary life. Many of us can relate — no matter our age.

Maybe you stopped playing tennis after high school in the scramble to finish college, find a career or start a family, and then couldn’t make it through the third set when you picked up a racquet again. Or perhaps you resurrected a long-lost love for martial arts, only to realize you were a little … feeble since you last practiced. The muscle memory remains, but without staying power, you tire easily and your performance suffers.

The older you get and the less active you are, the faster stamina fades. After age 45, adults begin losing about one-quarter of a pound of muscle and gain that much body fat every year. “You need stamina so you can combat the aging process and overcome that tendency to gain fat and lose muscle,” says Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University and author of Strong Women Stay Young.

Whether you’re 25 or 85, if you build and maintain stamina with strength training and weight-bearing aerobic exercise, you’re more likely to keep exercising as you age, which translates into stronger bones, increased energy, better sleep, improved balance, and a reduced risk of developing just about every chronic disease and condition.

Why Is Stamina and Building Endurance Important?

The driving force behind stamina is more — as in the more you do, the more you can do. When you exercise regularly and progressively, your body responds by rebuilding, regenerating and making you stronger, just in case you want to do more again tomorrow.

In fact, when you consistently ask more of your body, every cell will rise to the challenge. Your cardiovascular system will deliver more blood to your muscles, and your heart will begin to recover more quickly after an activity. Your muscles will develop more blood vessels to process the increased blood and oxygen.

Within the muscle cells, tiny structures called mitochondria will multiply so your muscles can handle more work without getting tired. Your muscles will also become more efficient at burning fat and storing glycogen (two sources of energy), so you can work longer and harder without tiring. And, of course, if you stop exercising, the process reverses.

To step up your stamina, consider working with a qualified instructor who can customize a strategy and offer encouragement. “It’s never too late to begin strength training,” says Nelson.

Start with a program that includes both strength and aerobic training, because the real fitness magic occurs when you simultaneously improve your muscular and cardiovascular stamina. Use weight machines, free weights, kettlebells, fitness bands and balls, or your own body weight, and walk or do some form of aerobic activity regularly.

As you would expect, muscular strength and muscular stamina are closely related, says Wayne Westcott, PhD, CSCS, author of Building Strength and Stamina: For a Stronger, Leaner and Fatigue-Resistant Physique. If you increase one, you increase the other.

But muscular stamina and cardiovascular stamina are also connected. Your cardiovascular system has to be in good shape to run, bicycle or canoe, explains Westcott, but you’re also using your muscles, so you need good muscular stamina — both aerobic and anaerobic — to do those activities well.

For running, you need aerobic stamina (also known as aerobic endurance), which means your muscles are good at processing oxygen. For heavy lifting, pulling and pushing, you need good anaerobic endurance, which means your muscles are good at using stored energy.

To demonstrate how closely muscular and cardiovascular stamina are linked, Westcott and fellow researchers studied United States Air Force personnel who did poorly on their annual fitness assessments. Most were trying to revive their lost stamina by running hard a few weeks before the assessment, and in the process, many developed overuse injuries. The goal of the study was to find a safer and more efficient way to prepare for the assessment, which involved running and body-weight exercises.

After 90 days of training, those who circuit trained (moved quickly from one resistance exercise machine or station to the next) three times a week for 25 minutes, with one minute of stationary cycling between exercises, scored higher and had fewer injuries than the group doing 60 minutes of aerobic exercise, mostly running, four or five days a week.

“We found statistically significant improvements in every single parameter tested and the total test score,” says Westcott. Most notably, the circuit-training group substantially improved their running scores — even though they did no running during training.

Doing the Drill

Sold on stepping up your stamina? If you’ve been out of the fitness loop for a while, Westcott recommends starting out with basic circuit training (single sets of eight to 12 repetitions of squats, bench press and lat pull-downs, for example), and gradually building up to more sets and exercises.

After an eight-week program of circuit training at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass., Jim Vranas (the 82-year-old war vet) went from leg-pressing 145 pounds to leg-pressing 310 pounds — more than twice his body weight of 135 pounds. Now he trains for an hour a day, five mornings a week, and at the end of the day he still feels energized.

He starts his workout with a milelong walk around the track, hits the weight machines for 30 minutes and does lunges holding 15-pound hand weights. He also kickboxes for 10 minutes and knocks out some chin-ups. “I did 21 chin-ups the last time I worked out, and I felt so good that five minutes later I did another 21,” he says. In the afternoons, he walks a mile at the mall with his wife, Ardie, also 82.

Ardie has type 2 diabetes and was never as active as Jim. Nevertheless, she began working with a personal trainer six months ago. Now she circuit trains for 30 minutes, three times a week. The payoff, she says, is that she feels better and has more energy during her walks at the mall — and she’s dropped 5 pounds. (For more on going strong later in life, see “Ageless Vitality” and “Power Aging”.)

How to Improve Your Stamina

Once you’re comfortable with a regular strength-training program, you can customize your workout by adding range-of-motion exercises to help you get more mileage out of your joints, for example, or by working to strengthen specific muscle groups used for a favorite sport — a concept known as functional training.

“Building stamina is the key to enjoying recreational activities that require physical effort for longer periods of time — like playing 18 holes of golf instead of nine, or playing four days a week instead of just on weekends,” says Westcott.

Of course, training isn’t the whole story. You also need a healthy eating plan that includes high-quality protein, whole foods, healthy carbs such as whole grains, and plenty of water. And, you need your z’s.

“Deep sleep increases growth hormone, so your body can better repair and rebuild muscle and bone after you exercise,” says Sara Mednick, PhD, a project scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life (Workman Publishing, 2006). “Getting your eight hours also boosts the sleep hormone melatonin, which has antioxidant qualities that help your metabolism,” she says.

And getting enough shuteye protects your cardiovascular health, an essential component of staying power. Taking a nap three times a week lowers the risk of coronary death by 37 percent, according to a study published in the February 2007 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine. “Most likely this is because napping decreases the stress hormone cortisol, so you’re also less likely to reach for high-fat or high-sugar foods and to store body fat,” says Mednick.

Competitive athletes are particularly interested in how food, water and rest affect staying power. David C. Nieman, DrPH, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., studied elite marathoners and cyclists and found that inadequate hydration can lower stamina and performance. “If you lose over 2 percent of your body weight through sweat, your heart rate becomes elevated and your stamina decreases,” he explains.

His group also found that during 90 minutes or more of strenuous exercise, the body’s carbohydrate stores can drop too low, which depletes muscle glycogen, leading to a sudden loss of stamina, or what’s commonly called “hitting the wall.”

Replenishing your body with a carb-rich snack or sport drink will allow you to maintain your pace longer. (For tips on how to properly fuel and hydrate for fitness activities, see “Time to Eat”.)

Still, the biggest factor in boosting stamina is regular exercise. “People make time to sleep and eat every day — exercise should be in the same league,” says Nieman, 57, who makes time in his busy schedule every day for his own mix of weightlifting, running, stationary cycling and manual labor on his berry farm. He celebrates his superior staying power by running marathons and ultramarathons and says he plans to live to be 100, as do Jim and Ardie Vranas.

Of course, they have quite a jump on him. “We’re so thankful that, at 82, we have the might and the strength to do what we want to do every day. I don’t feel my age — I’ve never felt so good,” says Jim. “I highly recommend what we’re doing to everyone, no matter how old.”

Stamina Checklist

  • Assess your current level of stamina. Knowing where you are helps you know where to begin, which in turn lowers your risk of getting injured and quitting. Consider getting a V02-max or other fitness assessment at your local health club or sports clinic.
  • Strength train. Regularly lift something in a way that gets your heart pumping — whether you use free weights, kettlebells, weight machines or your own body weight.
  • Customize. Work with a trainer to create a fitness program that specifically addresses your favorite sports activities and personal health concerns. Then get out and play, ride a bike, or join a basketball league.
  • Eat and drink right. Your weight training will progress faster and better if you give your body the fuel and water it needs — before, during and after exercise.
  • Take a snooze. A 20-minute nap can give your brain and body the opportunity to do some restorative work, notes Sara Mednick, PhD, a project scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Napping doesn’t give you license to skimp on the real stuff, though: Strive for a solid eight hours each and every night.

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