PHILADELPHIA — Seventy-seven-year-old David Pallett, who began exercising seriously about four months ago, started a recent workout by donning a 15-pound vest and climbing 100 stairs — two at a time.
After that little warm-up, personal trainer Jim Hart, who specializes in working with older adults, led Pallett through an hour of exercises meant to improve strength, balance, power and metabolic health. The semi-retired lawyer gamely worked his abs while perched precariously on a 72-cm ball. Hart combined such movements as punches and lunges so that Pallett was using his arms, abs and legs all at once. That required the kind of whole-body coordination needed to avoid falls or do physically demanding work at home.
They finished at Optimal Sport 1315 in Center City with some upper-body work on weight machines set at about 45 pounds.
Pallett, a trim man with a white beard and silver hair, has increased the weights he’s using by about 30% since he began these workouts. Hart thinks his client is still in the “beginning stages of his potential.” It will likely be at least eight more months before Pallett plateaus.
Could he catch up to similar men who have exercised their entire lives?
Hart, 61, thinks that is sometimes possible if older exercisers work hard enough and have the right genes, but most experts say people who put off exercising until their retirement years are at a disadvantage. They enter late life — a time when strong muscles and good aerobic capacity can make the difference between independence and disability — with poorer-quality blood vessels, nerves and muscles than peers who have always been fit. New exercisers can repair much of the damage, but, probably, not all of it.
“We can’t undo 20 years of terrible living,” said Dan Ritchie, co-founder and president of the Functional Aging Institute, where Hart trained to work with elders.
The good news is that you don’t have to catch up to the lifelong runners and gym rats to improve your health and quality of life. “You can take really unfit people at 70,” Ritchie said, “and get them really fit and doing amazing things.” One client started working with him at 78. Now in her late 80s, she can leg press her own body weight, and use 5- to 10-pound dumbbells.
Pallett jokes about looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger and besting his very strong 30-year-old son at arm wrestling. He would like to live longer than his mother, who made it to 97, and avoid the dementia that took his father in his early 80s. For now, he’s happy that his posture is improving and that his shirts fit tighter across the chest as he’s gained muscle.
A man who came late to fatherhood and loved it, Pallett listened when his son encouraged him to exercise. “I told him I could beat him,” Pallett said. “I know I’ll never beat him. I’m too old, and he’s too young. He wanted me to get healthy because he didn’t want me to die.”
As Melissa Markofski, an exercise physiologist and aging expert at the University of Houston, says, “Comparison is the root of unhappiness.”
But let’s start by doing it anyway.
Physical activity is one of the most important things people can do to increase the number of healthy years in their lifespan, and experts say it’s better to start young.
“I’m a huge fan of exercise, because, without question, it’s the most effective means that we have today to counter the fundamental biology of aging,” said Nathan LeBrasseur, a physiologist and physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who studies muscle growth and metabolism.
Aging, he said, is the “accumulation of molecular and cellular damage.” It drives dysfunction and disease. Exercise can slow it down. Obesity, which often accompanies low activity, accelerates it.
People reach their physical peak about age 30, said Steven Austad, chair of biology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and senior scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research.
We lose about 30% of our muscle mass and 50% of strength in later life. Exercisers sustain higher levels of mass longer, so they start their decline from a higher point than sedentary peers. Although you can still add muscle in your 80s and 90s, it becomes much harder, researchers said.
David Pallett, 77, of Philadelphia uses an eight-pound medicine ball to work out with Jim Hart, a personal trainer who specializes in working with older adults, at Optimal Sport 1315 in Center City, Philadelphia.
David Pallett, 77, works out on the steps of Optimal Sport gym during a session with personal trainer Jim Hart.