Irish sports scientist on the perfect mixture of exercise that can keep you looking and feeling young

Sports scientist Dr James Timmons says activity is the key to future-proofing a good quality of life.

But the exercise specialist insists we need to start today if we want to age well – no matter how young we are, or how busy our lifestyles.

Today, he wants to give Irish Mirror readers an exercise prescription that aims to match health spans with life spans.

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His “exercise as medicine” programme comes after boxing legend Barry McGuigan told yesterday how keeping fit is the secret to staying young in his 60s.

McGuigan believes: “Fitness should be par for the course.”

Dr Timmons agrees, recommending it as a regular part of our daily lives.

He said: “We’re ageing from the minute we’re born, but it ramps up from about the age of 30.

“From then on, muscle cells and tissue and bones begin to age. There’s a slight decline in muscle mass year on year from this age onwards.

“Between 30 and 50 is a very stressful, hectic time – we’re raising kids and there’s work stress and lack of sleep

“It’s a critical time frame in life and yet its pressures are not conducive to a healthy lifestyle.

“You need to take the reins and say: ‘I am going to make time in my day to move’.

“If you can have a constant habit of physical activity from 30 onwards, you can maintain muscle mass and strength into your 80s.

“If you do nothing and become sedentary, risk factors for diseases associated with ageing become higher. All this mightn’t matter when you’re 30. But if the sedentary habits continue, it matters when you’re 60 or 70 or 80.

“If you have less muscle mass, you’re weaker and more likely to fall. If you fall, you’re more likely to break something. If you break something, you’re more likely to move less, and if you move less you’re more likely to die.”

“That’s the reality. On the flip side, if you augment your muscle mass, that has benefits in strength, function and balance.”

Turning 40 is another milestone in health: “I’m 41. When you hit your 40s, it’s a key moment. Which way do you choose to go? One way or the other?”

As an academic, Dr Timmons has published a wealth of international research into how sedentary behaviour is a potent risk factor for chronic diseases and disabilities.

He founded Age Well Fitness online exercise programmes and has a special interest in exercise adherence and maintenance for the older generation.

There are clinical benefits to appropriate exercise with no upper age limits and he believes “there are no excuses”.

He adds: “Genetics play a part in how you age, but we know from studies on twins that 80% is lifestyle. Only about 20% is genetics. That’s a key factor.”

He has found that a mixture of strength training and cardiovascular workouts give the most effective results.

Dr Timmons says: “It’s about movement – but there are lots of different ways of moving. There are two components to ageing well when it comes to activity.

“One of the most important is cardiovascular. Cardio fitness is important, as cardiovascular disease is still one of the biggest killers.

“Cardio is anything that gets your heart rate up. Walking, running, rowing, cross-training, cycling. It raises your heart rate above a certain level and gives a cardio hit. Even dancing is an enjoyable way to do cardio.

“It’s often under-valued in the fitness industry where there is an over-focus on aesthetics. But it is extremely important for your heart muscle.”

He says it also has wellbeing advantages as it usually involves fresh air and head space and helps with mental focus and cognitive function.

“As you age, your memory can decline, but cardio fitness due to blood flow through the brain can help with that.”

Strength training can be done in a gym setting, or at home. It makes you flexible, mobile, strong and reduces injury risk. Weights, resistance bands or callisthenics – exercises that use your own bodyweight – are examples of strength training.

Dr Timmons advises a mixture of both cardio exercise and strength training, for 24 minutes, carried out three times a week. His studies show that doing both together – as opposed to alone – gets rid of the dreaded middle-aged spread, the spare tyre no-one wants.

He says: “Doing the two types together is called ‘concurrent training’ and it is hugely effective across the board.

“It improves overall fitness, improves lower limb strength and reduces trunk-fat mass.

“This is the visceral fat around the mid-section, often referred to as ‘middle-age spread’.

“From a health perspective, this fat clogs your vital organs.”

We should also be walking for a half an hour five days a week.

He advises: “Walking is good for you. But walking alone is not enough. If you’re going for a walk, you must ensure you’re hitting the ‘talking/singing’ test.

“That means you shouldn’t be able to sing and you should be struggling to talk.”

Dr Timmons is a former athlete. When he experienced groin pains and issues with movements he became interested in how the body works. He focused on older patients as a way to help improve and lengthen lives.

He says: “It’s about matching your health span to your life span.

“We’re all living longer. I want to live until I’m 100, but I want to be healthy at 99 and a half. You’ll be happier for it too.”

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