FACE Fitness: Become a Younger, Stronger Walker

Research discovers that "use it or lose it" is only half the benefit of running for walkers.

November 26, 2014

Repeat after us: I am never too old to run. In fact, jogging might just be the fountain of youth. First, researchers find that it can add years to your life, and now research is showing that older runners can walk as well as someone who is in their 20s, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Adults over the age of 65 who ran for at least 30 minutes, three times per week had less age-related issues when it came to walking and were 7 to 10 percent better at walking than those who didn't jog at all, the study authors reported.


"What we found is that older adults who regularly participate in high-aerobic activities—running in particular—have what we call a lower metabolic cost of walking than older sedentary adults. In fact, their metabolic cost of walking is similar to young adults in their 20s," said Justus Ortega, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Humboldt State University (HSU) and director of HSU's Biomechanics Lab. (Exercise also helps treat these nine health problems.)

Metabolic cost measures the amount of energy needed to move. Younger people have a lower metabolic cost than older people, but this study shows that physical exercise may be able to mediate this.

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Keep in mind, the study compared runners to non-runners (it didn't teach non-runners to run and then compare their before-and-after performances), but plenty of evidence supports the idea that you can run yourself younger and certainly stronger. Consider Margaret Webb, author of Older, Faster, Stronger. She picked up running at the age of 42 and transformed her body, inside and out.

For instance, at age 50, Webb boosted her max VO2 from 39 to 43 after nine months of working out and training. Max VO2 is the maximum amount of oxygen a body can use to make fuel. Low VO2 is a good predictor of disease and early mortality.

To put this into perspective, Webb's max VO2 is within the score range of a fit college-age woman. Plus, she's able to run a marathon in a time that's just 3 minutes under the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon set for women age 34. All this from a former overweight smoker who didn't start doing marathons until she was 50.

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"For women like me who came to running later and will never know what we might have achieved in our athletic prime," says Webb, "an improved finish time matters as a measure of fitness, as a new limit that we can then push hard against."

Webb describes her four areas of focus for improving her fitness using the "FACE Your Future" method created by fitness expert Vonda Wright.

F: Flexibility
"The lack of flexibility makes older runners' strides so short that it looks like they're running in a puddle of water," says Webb. She prefers dynamic stretching (moving through the range of motion), rather than static, forceful stretching, to avoid overstretching.

A: Aerobics
Get your heart rate up. This means 30 minutes every day of running, walking, cycling, or swimming.

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C: Carrying a Load
This includes lifting weights, body-weight resistance training, using resistance bands, and cycling. Webb points out that research says that 6 minutes of isometric exercises (or using the muscle in a static position) is equivalent to 30 minutes of muscle work on a weight machine. Yoga also counts in this category.

E: Equilibrium
Balance is a major concern for older adults. Webb points out that it can "go out of whack" as early as age 25. "This is a huge blind spot for many runners, and we often blame our increasing tendency to fall on rough trails, uneven pavement, or slippery surfaces," she says. "Luckily, shoring up my balance can be as easy as standing on one leg while I'm brushing my teeth or, even better, while I'm lifting weights."

For more ways to keep feeling young and healthy, watch out for these accelerated aging triggers.