Monday, November 28, 2016

Staying functional throughout life

In any aspect of life, headroom is a good thing. More headroom in your savings account gives you wiggle room to live your life the way you want to. Headroom in your car prevents you from smacking your head.

When it comes to exercise, the term "physiological headroom" might be the most important kind of headroom.

The term was coined by fitness pioneer Art DeVany and has been used in recent years by Dr. Doug McGuff and is simply defined as the difference between the least you can do and the most you can do.

When thinking about this metaphor in terms of two lines, the bottom line representing the least you can do and the top line being the most you can do, with the space in the middle being the physiological headroom. For our purposes, let's say the least you can do is lay down on a bed perfectly still, while the most you can do is run as fast as you can from a bear that is trying to eat you.

While that situation doesn't come up too often — hopefully — it represents a good evolutionary picture on why we have needed to increase our physiological headroom in our not-so-distant past as a species. The more headroom we had, the better our chance of survival was, day in and day out.

While bears might not be chasing us up trees anymore, not being able to perform basic tasks as we age has become a reality, albeit a completely avoidable one. Sarcopenia is the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle, which happens to all of us at a rapid clip after a certain age. The fact is, after you're done growing, if you aren't actively trying to build muscle, you're actively losing it, and the rate increases to up to three percent per year as we enter our 60s and 70s.

Fortunately, much like good dental hygiene can help you keep your teeth, proper strength training helps not only keep muscle tissue, but build more lean mass, which enables people to live much more functional lives into their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. 

Remember, physiological headroom is the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do, and once those two concepts become the same and the gap between them closes, you're dead. 

We tend to think of older generations as being weak, hunched over and slowly becoming unable to do the things they used to do on their own. This is directly related to sarcopenia, and is completely preventable and even reversible with proper strength training. And unlike brushing your teeth, you don't need to do it twice a day.

Performing high intensity resistance training once or twice a week for 20-30 minutes is more than enough to reverse the effects of sarcopenia and comes with a host of other physiological benefits. High intensity resistance training uses a slow and safe protocol, which allows the person to eliminate dangerous momentum and force, enabling them to directly target musculature without the dangers associated with traditional weight training.

Matt Carstens is a master personal trainer with a specialization in high intensity resistance training. He can be reached at