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How will aging impact your ability to do your Sea to Sky Sport?

A Q&A with a BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit doctor.

In the Sea to Sky Corridor, we love our sports and like them on the — well — spicier side.

And we are a young-ish community. 

According to the latest census, only about 12% of us are over 65. 

For comparison, in Canada overall, the proportion of seniors was 19% in 2021.

Most of us are here for recreation. 

So, what will aging mean for the sports we love? 

The Squamish Chief asked Dr. Ian Pike, director of the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit, about aging and sport. Not only is he an expert, but his daughter also lives in Squamish, and he has been here often. 

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

What should our young, fit population know about aging and exercise? 

I think, first of all, we want to say that exercise is beneficial. There's so much evidence now in the scientific literature that suggests that regular physical activity, whether that's in the form of recreational or sport-type activity or anything that keeps your body moving, keeps the large muscle groups going, challenges your range of motion, your flexibility, your strength — any of those kinds of activities are beneficial. 

And they have beneficial effects on physical, mental, and emotional health. Aerobic exercise, reduces stress hormones in our body. So cortisol and adrenaline go down. And at the same time, it stimulates the production of endorphins.

It's really important when people decide to engage in physical activities, sport or exercise or extreme activities, that they have a good sense of where their own personal health and fitness is at.

We know that there is a natural aging process. But for some people, it goes faster. For others, it goes slower. And these are both very natural trajectories. But we can all do things to preserve youthfulness, range of motion, strength, and our ability to engage in these activities for a long time. Rather than just sitting and doing nothing.

So, what impact does aging have on us in terms of exercise? 

As we age, we know things happen, like our arteries and our blood vessels get a little stiffer. And as such, the heart then has to work a little harder to pump the blood around the body. Our bones tend to shrink a little bit in both their size and density. And muscles attached to bones can lose some flexibility, strength, and endurance, and joints can become a little more susceptible to injury. And it is the very action of the muscles, exerting force on bones, like moving those two ranges of motion, that keeps the minerals in the bone. So bones are kept strong by muscular force being applied to them. 

Your brain changes a little bit as you get older. And I think we all start searching for words as we get older. And the normal decrement in cognition that happens can be delayed through regular physical activity. Sight and hearing change a little bit, and skin becomes less elastic. Older people tend to bruise a little more easily; they may get big red bulging bruising after what seemed to be a fairly innocuous kind of bump or strike. But regular exercise, keeping yourself mentally sharp, eating a healthy diet, and remaining active and engaged can mitigate many of these changes and promote good mental and physical health.

What is the biggest concern for aging athletes? 

Regardless of age, what we're really concerned about is the prevention of injuries. One thing we do know is that when people engage in physical activity if they experience injury, that injury can cause them to stop doing that activity. Period. So a bad experience can make them go, "Oh, well, that didn't work for me. I'm not going to do that again." And that's the problem.

What can be done to prevent injury, then? 

We want to keep the muscles strong.  Depending on where you are at with your physiological fitness, we want to challenge large muscles every other day — carry weight to push force, and remain as strong as possible without going too far and injuring the muscle itself. 

So it's a balance. And there are great formulas for understanding what force can be exerted. Anybody who is engaging in weight training, for example, for the first time, should get advice, get a trainer, and read some books. Understand how to do it. Don't walk into the gym and do 250 pounds on the bar press. It's going to really injure you. And we want also to remember that exercise is specific.

Can you explain that idea further? 

When you get fit through running, you are more fit for running; it will give you some advantage for swimming, but not very much. To be a good swimmer, you need to train with swimming. If you want to be a good rock climber, you need to train in rock climbing. Because the demands on the body of an activity like rock climbing, where you're using your upper arms, legs, fingers, and grip strength, only come from doing that activity.

Other advice on training? 

Get the right gear, particularly if you're engaging in the kind of activities that people in Squamish do. 

You know, rock climbing, mountain biking, windsurfing, all of these things have appropriate specialized personal protective equipment to be worn. And we would always encourage individuals to wear that equipment to ensure it fits properly.

And train properly. When you go on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, during that session on Monday, it's called a catabolic process. The exercise breaks down the body a little bit, right? Because then seizing of the muscles takes energy and fibre.  And the reason for the rest in between the next bout of activity on Wednesday is that on Tuesday, you will get something that's called accommodation. Not only does your body recover from that exercise bout, but you also get a little bit better than on Monday. You get this stepwise progression.

If we are experienced in our sport — mountain biking or rock climbing, say — at what age should we start thinking about aging as a possible factor? 

I think that that's the process that happens over an entire lifetime that you're engaged in an activity. So for all activities, you will be a learner, have some mastery, and be an expert. And then it starts to decline. Even Olympic athletes — get 15 minutes in the sun. I think it's a constant check-in: "What am I able to do at this stage of my life trajectory?"

Let's say rock climbing. You have to ask, where is the level of strength of my fingers, wrists, shoulders, elbows, ankles, and feet? Am I still able to support myself on the rock face like I was a few years ago? And then, sad as that is, that person has to be able to look in the mirror and say, “You know what, I need to challenge myself appropriately, given what I'm experiencing on the rock face in terms of the decrements that are happening.” It doesn't mean to say that I can't enjoy the activity. But it might be a lesser route up the rock face.

It's just a constant check in. How am I doing today? And how am I doing compared to yesterday, last week, and the month and year before? And do I, in being completely honest with myself, need to make some modifications?

That will be a tough ego hit for some, I would imagine? 

Hugely hard on the ego. But you know what, at the same time, people who cannot go through that acceptance process and still challenge themselves like they were 25 years old, that is a group that is more likely to have something serious or catastrophic happen. 

We want to recognize that the aging process occurs to all of us to a greater or lesser extent, depending on individual differences. 

It is a natural process.

What about folks who come here, say in mid-life and want to try one of our popular sports, such as mountain biking? What is your advice? 

I would say do it. But get professional advice to begin with. Don't take your new bike up to the top of the mountain and just point it downhill. Go to the club, the association, and their training lessons.

And also, sport and recreation are not just individual challenges, there are highly social events. And the social aspect of sport and recreation is to be applauded. Many people gain lifelong friends through sport. 

Also, for the middle-years person, who wants to try something new, have a base of physical activity. Don't get up off your couch after 20 years and expect to be able to do it. 

We want baseline training over 10 to 12 weeks to prepare people for more specific training. 

One should be active every day for about half an hour to 45 minutes, at a pace where you start to feel a little glow on the forehead, a little damp in the armpits and it means you are pushing yourself just a little bit. But you're still able to breathe; you're still able to carry on a conversation with the person working with you.

What about the general differences between men and women with sport? 

We know that typically, women are drawn to activities because they are more social and have relationship factors that are better, while men tend to go there because it's about their health or some level of competition with themselves or with others. So there is a difference in how women versus men generally are attracted to activities. But there's a lot more work to be done on that. And I think that we can still recognize that in the back of our minds as we promote physical activity and participation of all older adults.

Anything else about sport and aging? 

There's a lot of literature on the effectiveness of Tai Chi for older adults. 

There's very deliberate movement there, no sweating. There are controlled muscular forces and balance. This can help prevent older adults from having the slip, trip and fall incidents and then suffering a hip fracture. And then, unfortunately, being admitted to hospital, and never recovering and dying from pneumonia.

We know from experts that heat impacts older folks more, so when we do whatever sport, what should we keep in mind during these heat waves? 

The rule for everybody is to hydrate more than you think you should. I don't care whether you have to go beyond the tree every five minutes to pee — drink water. 

And you don't have to drink supplemental drinks. Just drink water. 

Now, part of the aging process, with all of those other natural detriments, is the thermal regulatory system does take a little bit of a hit as well. And seniors' ability to regulate through perspiration and the normal ways that we keep ourselves cool in this kind of temperature takes a little bit of a hit. So the advice to seniors is to keep really well-hydrated. Because the signals to the hypothalamus about thirst and hunger become a bit impaired as we age. So the signal to drink or eat isn't there the same. So you must consciously pour the water down your throat, regardless of whether you feel you need it or not. So that's important. Watch for the signals. If you are feeling hot, if you are getting red and feeling a little wobbly, dizzy, and a little nauseous, get out of the sun. Hydrate. 

One thing that is not very well known here that is a good practice that my partner does is to soak down a sarong (draped fabric clothing) with cold water and then lay it on you when you go to bed. And that in and of itself forces heat away from the body. It keeps you cool. We learned that in our travels to Southeast Asia, where it is a common practice. 

If all you have is a fan pointed right at it you, that's going to increase your need for moisture because you're just making the moisture from your body go even more quickly. So replacement of fluids is important if that is how you keep cool.

And, if you get to a place where you've stopped sweating entirely, you're entering into something called heatstroke, rather than just heat exhaustion. This is a 911 situation. And particularly for older adults, that's an emergency call. You need to get help. Don't be afraid to call.