Better understanding recovery differences as we age

Posted on January 8, 2018

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This study got some undeserved publicity in the fitness world:

Comparisons in the Recovery Response From Resistance Exercise Between Young and Middle-Aged Men

The researchers looked at young males, average age 21 years, compared to middle age ones, average age 47 years, and found, in response to a high volume resistance exercise protocol, there was no difference in a bunch of recovery measures.

This caused some media outlets, like T-Nation, to run articles titled “Age Makes No Difference in Recovery Rates”.

Considering aging is a risk factor for every human ailment (the only thing that gets easier after 25 is avoiding youthful idiocy), that’s quite a bold title! Furthermore,

  • The study had a sample size of a whopping nineteen
    • We don’t even have 10 males in each group!
      • And no females
  • The study examined a single workout
  • The study only followed up for 48 hours
  • The two groups did not have the same baseline, yet recovery was considered relative to baseline

Let’s unpack the last point. When we see Kobe Bryant age, having trouble playing back to back nights or making it through an entire season, telling us how terrible he felt in his 30s, we don’t care whether Kobe could play in back to back rec league games. We care whether he can play back to back NBA games. We care we assess him at 35 the way we did at 25.

We’re not saying Kobe can’t recover as well as a young guy if he plays half the minutes of him. Or plays at half the intensity. We’re saying he can’t recover if he plays the same minutes at the same intensity.

In this study, you could be an older male who can only bench press 200 pounds. Compared to 300 pounds for the younger. Relative to performing your 200 pound max, you can recover as well as the younger lifter and his 300 pound max. But that’s not what we care about when we reference recovery issues and aging.

What we say, and what older people mean by “I can’t recover like I used to,” is if that older person tried to bench press 300 pounds like they used to be able to do, they’d be wrecked compared to when they were 21.

Try to go up to some older people and tell them “Hey, you recover as well as a 21 year old. You can go hard like they do.”

They’ll look at you like you’re insane. If I said that to my older clients, they’d hire someone else.

There are times when research reveals dogma, but there are also times when research doesn’t pass the eye test. To read a single study, with a small sample, contradicting all common sense and anecdotal experience, then run articles to the tune of “age doesn’t matter for recovery”, when we already have 30 years of research disputing that -do we think nobody has ever looked at this???-

The Effect of Aging on Skeletal-Muscle Recovery From Exercise: Possible Implications for Aging Athletes

is absurd. Age matters for everything!

 

It’s well accepted kids heal broken bones weeks faster than adults. For many athletes, when talking about recovery, they notice differences from their teenage years to their 20s.

So that’s another factor with age and recovery- what age groups are we talking?

Next, how much difference matters? In this study:

Older Age Does Not Affect Healing Time and Functional Outcomes After Fracture Nonunion Surgery

From the title you might deduce there is no difference in bone healing with aging. But again, kids heal faster than adults. This study compared adults with older adults. Yes, pedantic, but still not the same as saying “older age does not affect…”

Furthermore, the study did find a difference! Being above 65 years old and the healing time was, on average, a month longer.  In many cases, healing time could be three months longer.

When they say they didn’t find a difference, they didn’t find a statistically significant one. However, if you work with people above 65 years old, do you really read this study, and just because the p-value wasn’t as good as we want, conclude you should handle geriatrics the same as non? Or do you prepare for healing to probably take a bit longer? A modicum of sense says the latter.

-> Properly interpreting a p-value actually necessitates going with the latter. A high p-value does not tell you there was no clinically relevant difference. It says you can’t rule out the difference was due to chance.

In most studies, we want to be 95% or more sure. In this study, we were only 70%. Hardly worth an absolute -“no difference”- conclusion!

If you’re a professional athlete, once past your prime, you might be only 1-10% less recovered game to game than you used to be. A difference unlikely to ever come about as statistically significant. Yet professionally, you’re on your way out of a job. Or your sport makes a 1% difference mean kingdom or irrelevance:

(Bolt won by 1.4%, yet did that race look close to anybody?)

There is no doubt many older people complain / obsess / blame too much on their age. I’ve trained these types. Their mentality holds them back more than their body. Most, particularly those above 30, aren’t going to be pushing themselves hard enough to warrant extra time to recover. I prescribe regular deload weeks for maybe 10% of my everyday clients.

-> However, whenever implementing something new, I make it easy. So I do regularly prescribe lighter sessions, but that’s so we don’t blow someone up with a new movement. A lack of familiarity is breeding ground for injury. Also pedantic, but it’s not the same as a deload week.

On this site, I’ve illustrated older people can do plenty-

Age is not an excuse to be out of shape

A program for push-ups at 75 years old

Being old doesn’t have to mean being slow

Because even if older people do heal a broken bone a month slower than younger people, or if they can only do two hard workouts a week instead of three, that’s not a big deal in the grand scheme. When a person complains they can’t go up a flight of stairs without losing their breath, or can’t lift a bag of dog food, that’s not because they’re on the other side of 40.

You can’t make an asinine leap to “age doesn’t matter.” (I’ve trained these people too. They invariably get injured acting like they’re 20.) You instead make the small step to treating older people with a little more caution.

  • They mention something hurt after last workout? I’m more cautious the following workout than with a 15 year old.
  • Rough day at work? “Can’t even” with their family? I’m more cautious than with a 20 year old who is stressed whether a guy will call them.
  • Hard workout? Next workout is more likely to be easier than with a younger person.

You don’t treat them like they’re handicapped, but not like nothing has changed either.

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Need help finding the right balance? Here you go.

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