Could 2005 be the year that you discover a fountain of youth? Well, a new book promises just that — especially to men — if they're willing to stick to seven simple rules. Dr. Henry Lodge is an internal medicine specialist in New York City, and 70-year-old Chris Crowley is not only his patient, but together the two have written, "Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You're 80 and Beyond." They were invited to discuss the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:
A World of Pain: Strength Training
How many times has someone slid up to you and said, “Hey, I’ve got a neat idea! Let’s go down to the gym and lift incredibly heavy weights until it hurts like crazy and we have to stop!” Once a week? Once a year? Let me guess. Never? And why is that? Because lifting weights is stupid, embarrassing and painful, that’s why.
I remember the first time I decided to venture into a weight room. It was when I lived in Aspen, where they tend to hide weight rooms in “spas,” which look deceptively normal at street level. Lots of expensive shrubbery, lots of glass. A pretty girl just inside the door to take your dough and sign you up for a year. It happens very fast. The pretty girl takes your credit card and says, “I’m Chanterelle, by the way. Let me show you the pool.” Which she does. It’s nice. Then the cheerful room full of aerobic dancers. The step machines and the stationary bicycles. Nice. It all looks nice.
Then you get down to business: “So, look, do you, uh . . . have a weight room?”
A cloud passes over Chanterelle’s face. “Sure, sure. Let’s go take a look.” A hurried glance back at the counter and the mouthed words “Run his card!” Then down the rubber steps into an underground space that looks like a cross between the engine room of an old destroyer and a dominatrix’s mudroom. Lots of tile and mirrors. Drains in the floor, so it can be hosed down when they’re done with you. Huge steel machines with black pads all over. Lifting machines, twisting machines . . . machines to pull the teeth out of a Caterpillar tractor. And lots of sleek wires connecting this and that. Wires that seem to be used to tie up pretty girls, who struggle to get free, with a tremendous amount of sweat and not much luck. Young men, too. Men with weird veins running all over their arms and necks. Like fat worms under the skin. Veins like macaroni on acid and biceps that look as if they’ve been blown out. This is a scary place.
“Listen, you probably have a lot to do. I’ll just—”
“No, no,” Chanterelle says quickly. “You’ve already paid. You’re dressed. Let me just get Lance. Oh, Lance . . .”
Up hulks this guy with a deep tan and more teeth than you’ve ever seen in one mouth before. Sort of nice-looking, but something’s terribly wrong. Like his body doesn’t quite make sense. And the planes of his face . . . they’re way too sharp. This guy is . . .
Lance (or Biff or Hawk) says, “Hi, let me show you around,” and begins this rap about the machines and his special training techniques. But you’re not listening . . . you’re just staring, nervously. At his body. Because it’s becoming clear to you that he is almost certainly an android. And the manufacturer has scrimped on the little life-giving details that are so important. Maybe a foreign manufacturer, too, because he’s dressed funny. His little red shorts look much too small on his huge thighs. And he’s wearing a sleeveless T-shirt with enormous armholes through which it is impossible not to see his pecs, or whatever they’re called. And his armpits. His armpits are the deepest and furriest you have ever seen. You could raise wolverines in there. You want to take a step back so he won’t drip testosterone all over your sneakers. You want to get the hell out of there . . .
Why, you ask yourself, why is this man telling me all this in a book promoting exercise? I am telling you this because I want to persuade you to find a strength trainer — maybe not as bad as Lance, but bad — and learn to do weights. And then do them two days a week for the rest of your life. And I want you to know that Harry and I realize this is not an intuitively appealing idea. Regular strength training for life sounds stupid, nasty and scary. And we wouldn’t even mention it if it were not one of the best pieces of advice in the whole damn book. Strength training will make you feel good and stay healthy for the rest of your life — once you get over the shame and terror and revulsion. In fact, it’s so important that Harry has memorialized it in his Third Rule, which goes like this: Do serious strength training, with weights, two days a week for the rest of your life.
Do you remember how we talked about the tide that sets against you by the time you’re fifty? The tide that threatens to wash you up on the beach where the gulls and the crabs are waiting to do unpleasant things? Lifting weights is one of the critical things you do to stay off the beach. Because of your bones and your muscles and, most importantly, your joints.
Take bone first. In the normal course (and please remember that the “normal course” is no longer your friend), you lose 0.3 to 0.5 percent of your bone mass every year after age forty. That’s right, the tide is sucking the bone out of your bones at the rate of perhaps one percent every couple of years. Which is one of the things that turns us into little old guys, all bent over and stupid-looking. Fall down, break your hip. Go to bed. Never get up.
And muscle mass. That goes, too. Out with the tide. Turning the sweet muscles of your youth into the dusty drapery of old age. Makes you too weak to do stuff. Like run across the street if you have to. Or get out of the tub. Or ski. Or make love . . . move your pelvis back and forth in that pleasing way. No matter what, you’re going to lose muscle cells as you age; that’s one of the things you cannot change.
Your joints — the meshing bones and the tendons and sinews and goopy pads that make them work — are even more important at your age because they go to hell first if you don’t do something. The little grippers that attach tendon to bone get brittle and weak as you age. They atrophy. They let go without notice. And the goopy pads between the bones dry out and you make little crunching sounds when you move. And you hurt. The combination of all this stuff is aging joints, and it has more to do with your aging than almost anything else. When your joints go, you hurt all the time. You walk funny. You fall down. You get old.
Sounds bad, right? Well, here’s the weird thing. Lifting big, heavy weights stops most of that. Lifting heavy weights every couple of days basically stops the bone loss . . . stops (or offsets) the muscle loss . . . stops the weakening of tendons, restores the goopy pads and gets rid of the pain. Aerobic exercise does more to stop actual death, but strength training can make your life worthwhile. It keeps your muscle mass from going to muck, your skeleton from turning to dust, your joints from hurting with every lousy step. This is key. We would not put you through the horror of weight training if it were not key. Here’s another odd thing.
After you’ve been doing it for a while, you kind of get into it. We’ll come back to that.
Hire a Trainer or Read a Book or Both
So what do you do? Hire a trainer, at least to get started. Trainers are expensive, Lord knows, but they’re worth it. Learning to do weights is a little harder than it looks, and a surprising number of people you see in the gym are doing it wrong. Doing it wrong is both counterproductive and dangerous. Not “kill you” dangerous, but “hurt your joints and drive you away” dangerous. So hire a trainer for the first few workouts. And go back to him or her once in a while to keep yourself honest. Besides, for most of us, the world of weight lifting is such a strange land that it doesn’t hurt to have a friendly guide to get you past the weirdness.
If money is an issue — money is always an issue — you can get started by reading a decent book on the subject. There are any number of books that offer good guidance and neat little drawings or photos of guys doing stuff. But stay away from the books that promise to do it all for you in five minutes a week or some such nonsense. And avoid the temptation to buy one of those snappy gadgets on TV that promise to do all the work, without any unpleasant input from you. You’re a grown-up, right? Then don’t be a dope. The gadgets, or the weights, do not do the work. You do. If you could mail it in, we’d all look like the guy in the TV ads.
Okay, go to a decent gym and hire the nicest, smartest man or woman you can find. I was mostly kidding about Lance. There are guys like that out there — lots of them, actually. But there are plenty of informed people who are seriously interested in how bodies work and in making yours work better. It’s a hot little field these days, and good guys are going into it. I swear by a man in New York who does look a teeny bit like an android but who, in fact, knows this stuff cold and cares passionately about how I’m doing. That’s what you want.
Do not make the mistake of hiring some person who just talks to you. Or listens. The gyms are full of people paying big bucks to have guys chat with them and occasionally hand them a weight. You want someone serious who will teach you to do it right and, in time, get you to do it hard. You want someone who can tell you about range of motion and the right pace for a given set of repetitions. Doing reps fast is very tempting, but it’s always a bad idea. You need someone to make you slow down. And to keep doing reps when you want to quit. A good trainer does that and a lot more.
Some Training Tips
Harry and I are not the ones to tell you what machines or free weights to use and how to do it; we leave that to your trainer and the books. But we do have a couple of points. First: You are forty, or fifty, or sixty . . . you are not twenty or thirty. Second: You are here to be younger next year, not next week. You don’t want to make a mess of things in the first few days. So, much as it runs against my temperament to say it, take it easy. If you’re one of the handful of men your age who’s in great shape, take it sort of easy. If you’re like the rest of us, take it really easy. In the next chapter, Harry will tell you that you can build muscle pretty quickly, even at your age, but joints take much, much longer. Strong muscles can pull weak joints apart. So, in the first few months, do less weight than you can handle and more reps — maybe twenty instead of the usual ten or twelve. Give your joints time to get in the game.
Light weights and high reps in the beginning make sense for another reason: muscle memory. You may not think it, but using weights is a little like learning a new sport — not as complex as skiing or tennis, but a new sport just the same. And your muscles have to learn how. That’s less true with the machines, which is why free weights are better for you. They involve balancing and subtle corrections from side to side, all of which use and strengthen a whole bunch of other muscles and, more important, zillions of neuroconnectors, which are at the heart of your ability to function in the real world. It’s not just the strength that matters, it’s the wiring, too. The amazing message system that tells you where you are in the world and lets you function. By all means, use machines to get started and mix machines into your strength training indefinitely, but get into free weights, too.
Don’t show off. Guys are irresistibly tempted to pick up the heaviest weights they can find and totter around under them, proud as six-year-olds. Don’t. It’s silly and dangerous. And whatever your DNA tells you about competing with the other males in the pack for girls, it doesn’t really work that way anymore. Besides, you’ll hurt yourself. Don’t swing your weights, either, in a desperate effort to do more. That’s the cardinal sin of weight lifting, and you see it all the time. It does less to make you strong — and more to wreck your joints — than anything else. Ask your trainer. Read your book. But do not swing weights that are too heavy for you in an effort to look like more of a guy.
Eventually you have to get to heavy weights and low reps. You have to do weights “to failure” some of the time. That means pain. That means lifting weight that you can lift, say, only ten times before you literally cannot do it anymore. Sounds nasty, doesn’t it? But bear in mind how this process works. You build muscle by tearing it down. It’s all part of the growth and decay business that Harry is teaching us about. You actually tear the muscles a little by lifting heavy weights. When they grow back, they’re bigger and stronger. Your bone mass increases at the same time. And you gain tendon strength. And neuroconnector strength, which may be the most important of all.
To make real progress on the strength front, you may have to go to three days a week. (My trainer says two days is for maintenance, three days is for getting stronger.) If you do go to three days, rotate the areas covered. Your muscles need a day, or even two days, to recover from a serious weight session. If you don’t rest between sessions, it’s all teardown and no buildup. Not good. And don’t forget aerobics. No matter what, you have to have at least four days of aerobics each week.
Some weight room guys get aerobics in during their weight-lifting days by going on a fast “circuit.” That is, they rush from one set of reps to another — and from machine to machine — with little rest in between in order to get an aerobic as well as a strength workout. I guess that’s okay. By the time you get to circuit training with weights, you presumably have a pretty good idea about what you’re doing. But be sure you get a serious aerobic workout, one way or another, for forty-five minutes a day, four days a week. It is indispensable.
Excerpted from, "Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You're 80 and Beyond," by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, M.D. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Workman Publishing: