My first-ever gym workouts, as a teenager, started when a friend's grandmother moved into an apartment complex with a well-appointed weight room and arranged for him to sneak in periodically with his pals. We'd all stop by, lift some dumbbells, hoist the weights on a few machines and take a lot of lengthy breaks to chat about how much we could bench.
And, to be honest, other than the addition of cardio time and the subtraction of my old buddies, my workout remained pretty much the same for the next several decades: run, lift, rest; lift, rest, leave. Not surprisingly, as my exercise routine calcified, my body thickened as well, until finally, two years and 45 pounds ago, I started working with a personal trainer. In our first conversation, I described my workout routine to her and she said, "We've got to up the intensity."
To begin our first session, she walked me over to a set of stairs and asked me to run down the steps, one at a time, and run back up, two at a time, seven times. When I finished, I asked what was next. She said, "Two more sets. We want more intensity, right?"
I quickly learned from her that a successful 21st-century workout includes far less downtime than my 20th-century routine. When I go to the gym now, I immediately follow sets (8 to 12 repetitions) of upper-body exercises with sets of lunges or abdominal exercises — what trainers call "supersets." I then alternate lower-body sets with push-ups or more ab work, with only brief rest stops between each superset. The idea is to keep the heart rate elevated throughout the session to maximize the benefit and efficiently produce a full-body workout, all in less time than it took to do fewer exercises under my old regime.
It's not P90X, the ultra-intense fitness craze whose most notable adherent may be Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and whose acolytes like to swap stories about when the program first made them vomit. But it's still a more intense workout than many middle-aged adults may be used to.
Science says the heightened intensity is not only safe for those of us in middle age and beyond; it's just what we need. At this spring's annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, University of Alabama-Birmingham researcher Dr. Marcas Bamman presented the results of his study of 70 adults age 60 to 75. Bamman had randomly assigned each member of the group one of three supervised 30-week workout regimens. He found that those to whom he assigned the most intense regimen — twice-weekly, 45-minute workouts built around supersets, with one additional, less intense 45-minute workout mixed in — got the most benefits. People in that group gained four-and-a-half pounds of muscle mass on average, with no injuries. Not only could they handle an amped-up workout, they thrived.
"Effort is key," Bamman reported, along with thorough instruction in the exercises.
Bamman's is just one of several recent studies that argue for ramping up one's workout in middle age. A study from Denmark recently published in the online medical journal BMJ Open agues that the standard advice for people in middle age and beyond — walk as much as possible or simply get moving in whatever way you can to avoid being sedentary — may be insufficient.
The Danish team analyzed health and lifestyle reports for 10,000 adults over 10 years and found that regular, more-intense aerobic exercise, like fast walking or jogging, cut one's risk factors for heart disease and stroke — collectively known as metabolic syndrome — by as much as 50 percent, compared with people living a sedentary lifestyle. Casual daily walking, even for an hour each day, seemed to have little or no impact.
“Our results," the authors concluded, "suggest that intensity rather than volume of physical activity is important."
Other research makes the case that we need not ignore weight training to focus exclusively on running or other cardio exercises. A recent report in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity found that resistance training appeared to be just as effective as running in reducing metabolic syndrome and warding off cognitive decline in older adults. The report, which analyzed the results of 10 studies, found that a superset-style workout, performed at least twice a week over at least six months, "could positively affect cognition, including information-processing speed, attention, memory formation and specific types of executive function."
The research is clear: If we want to move through middle age in good health, we not only need to hit the gym, we need to hit it hard. Fortunately, we can handle it.
My main takeaway from the type of workouts I do now is not how challenging they are (very), or how achy I feel afterwards (plenty). Mostly, I feel a sense of disbelief that I can actually do the things I'm doing, things I never imagined I'd be fit enough to accomplish.
It's a great feeling, even better than benching five pounds more than my old pals.