"Because of the need for extra strength training as I grow older, I’m currently planning to add an extra day of weight work to my regimen." — Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper

The Father of Aerobics turned 90 this spring and while he is still a premier advocate of cardiovascular training for health and longevity he has also been "pumping iron" for some years now. Why? Because he came to recognize that the older you become the more important it is to include some weight training in your regular exercise routine.

From aerobic to iron guru

Cooper, the founder of the world-renowned Cooper Aerobic Center in Dallas and the creator of the term “aerobics” in 1968, at age 90 still exercises regularly, but now he walks, rides the stationary bike and circuit weight trains rather than jogs, which was halted from a bad ski accident. It was when he passed the tender age of 70 that he actually upped his weight training workouts from two to three each week. As he says, “You don’t stop exercising when you get old; you get old when you stop exercising!” And as he’s done all his career, he decided to share his newfound knowledge with others by writing a book, "Regaining the Power of Youth at Any Age." Cool.

But let me tell you that lifting weights has not always been the choicest of exercises for this famous aerobics guru. In fact, in his landmark book "Aerobics," which came out in 1968, Cooper didn’t even think weight training was a desirable form of exercise!

How things can change!

A concern for muscle

Fitness professional Phil Kaplan says that body transformation is really the combination of three synergistic elements:

1. Eating right.

2. Moderate aerobic exercise.

3. A concern for muscle.

You really can’t escape them, because these things are the fundamentals. But what I hope you are beginning to understand, as Cooper grew old enough to realize, is that the older you get the more the concern for muscle takes precedence. Even three-time Iron Man Champion (an over 8-hour endurance race) Mark Allen had to incorporate weight training into his routine to stay competitive when he reached his mid-30s. So understand that your exercise routine is not complete until it incorporates a concern for maintaining (or building) muscle.

Shifting the aerobic/strength balance

What Cooper now recommends, and it is a sound idea, is an “aerobic-strength axis” with the balance changing depending on how old you are. At age 40 and younger, he suggests 80% of the time you exercise should be spent on activities that are aerobic in nature, and only 20% on strength. This is fine because it nicely reflects the fact that younger people do not have the age-related muscle loss occurring that could affect those over 40. It also works because strength training is more intense, and therefore doesn’t require as much time to produce its beneficial effects.

At age 41 to 50, he suggests 70/30.

At age 51 to 60, he suggests 60/40.

And at 61 and older, he says 55/45.

These are just approximations, of course, and your overall goals and training style will alter the ratios somewhat. For example, some forms of weight training are quite “aerobic” in nature with short rests between sets, and some forms of endurance activity are quite “anaerobic,” like sprinting and interval training. But the bottom line according to Cooper “... is that you should always include at least 50% aerobic/endurance work in your personal fitness routine, regardless of your age and sports interest.” And also, everyone should perform “at least the minimum percentage of strength work. Otherwise, it’s virtually inevitable that you will suffer a dramatic loss in strength and muscle mass.”

Action points

1. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the minimum percentage of strength work is to do one to two “hard” sets of about 8-10 exercises covering all the major muscle groups. “Hard” is defined as a weight that brings you to volitional fatigue before 15 repetitions of the movement can be completed. If 15 or more can be done, next time add 2-10% more weight. If exercises are done that way two or three days a week it will be enough.

2. If you are not doing something “aerobic” at least half of the time you are active, recognize that you are missing a vital component for your overall fitness and health. Simply walking for 30 minutes most days of the week, or more vigorous, high-intensity aerobic activity for 20 minutes on three days a week, is recommended.

Thomas Morrison is a fitness coordinator at the Bradley Wellness Center.

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