Another important reason to stay fit: your independence

Increasing numbers of seniors need help with basic tasks. It doesn't have to be that way.

Elderly man doing a one-handed pushup

An elderly man does push-ups with one hand near the Quan River on November 21, 2019 in Fuyang, Anhui Province of China.

Photo by Wang Biao/VCG via Getty Images
  • Everyone suffers from sarcopenia: the loss of muscle mass and strength due to age.
  • While there are numerous benefits to exercise, an important one is remaining independent well into old age.
  • Weightlifting is essential for keeping muscle mass and strength as the decades go by.

The myriad benefits of exercise are well-documented. From physical strength and emotional control, to warding off cognitive disease, weight management, and overall life satisfaction, staying fit is demanded by our biology. There's another benefit of exercise that older populations need to consider: remaining independent well into old age.

That's the consensus of Amanda Loudin's recent Washington Post article. She begins by discussing an 82-year-old female powerlifter pummeling a home intruder with a table and bottle of baby shampoo. Thankfully, her incredible story was captured on video. Willie Murphy beat him so bad he begged her to call an ambulance. Fortunately (for him) the police arrived just in time to help him out.

Not everyone is Willie Murphy. But how many octogenarians would be able to fend for themselves when a younger and larger man breaks into their home? At that age, a mere slip can easily cause a hip fracture, which could quickly result in death. The fall causes the victim's immune system to be compromised, making them more susceptible to common illnesses like pneumonia. That process is exactly what killed my grandmother.

Only in the post-Industrial world did we even need to think of exercise as separate from everyday life. For most of time, every member of a tribe had to carry their own weight. Survival required physical activity; everyone had to chip in. Sure, there was hunting—the average nomadic tribe member walked an average of 19 miles per day—but there was also squatting and bending to pick vegetables, roots, and plants, carrying water from the river, and that essential component of social coherence: play.

Movement is a biological inheritance. We do harm when not honoring that fact.

Regardless of fitness level, sarcopenia plagues everyone. The loss of muscle tissue begins in our thirties. While any exercise aids in overall health, only by lifting heavy objects (or lighter objects repetitively—"time under tension" matters) do we fend off the ravages of muscular atrophy. As sports medicine physician Matt Sedgley tells Loudin,

"When we talk about bone health and falls, we talk about three factors: fall, fragility and force. Participating in weight-bearing and resistance-training exercises helps develop muscle mass. This may help treat fragility conditions like osteoporosis. So if you fall you have stronger bone density. It may also lead to more cushioning when you do fall."

Falling is one danger. There are other less serious (though equally frustrating) realities we face as we age. Walking up and down stairs without losing our breath. The ability to carry our groceries from the car. Speaking of cars, there's also driving. The more we lose motor control and strength, the less we'll be able to remain independent.

It doesn't have to be that way. Consider Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 101-year-old yoga instructor who continues to teach workshops and dance in ballroom competitions. Her secret? She never stopped being active. When I interviewed her in 2010, shortly after taking her master class, she had just broken her wrist. Within two months, at age 91, she was doing arm balances with ease. That injury would sideline people half her age far longer. As she told me that afternoon,

"I've had a hip replacement. I was getting dog food at A&P. I got twisted and ended up with a pin in my hip. Health-wise, I'm seldom sick. Mentally, I don't allow myself to think about tomorrow and what will happen. I don't like people to tell me what I can't do. I never thought about age."

At that time, Porchon-Lynch lived alone, shopped for herself, and drove herself around her upstate New York community to teach five yoga classes a week. When I've discussed her fierce independence and incredible fitness to people over the years, some claim genes and others luck. Sure, those factor in, but that sounds more like an excuse. It reduces a lifetime of hard work to a quip that makes someone feel better about their lack of desire for putting in the work to stay healthy.

Yoga with Tao Porchon-Lync

The author practicing with Tao Porchon-Lynch, Strala Yoga, New York City, 2010.

To paraphrase biomechanist and popular blogger, Katy Bowman, you are never out of shape; you are exactly in the shape you train for. If you don't train in any capacity, your shape is going to reduce the possibility that you'll remain independent later in life.

There are numerous arguments about exactly how to remain fit. What runs underneath all of them is that you have to move in some capacity. A 2012 review of sarcopenia in older adults details its causes and consequences, as well as offering ways of fending off inevitable decline. Aging is the obvious culprit, though the authors better define the issues:

"Its cause is widely regarded as multifactorial, with neurological decline, hormonal changes, inflammatory pathway activation, declines in activity, chronic illness, fatty infiltration, and poor nutrition, all shown to be contributing factors."

By the eighth decade of life as much as 50 percent of muscle mass has been lost. Obesity, an increasing problem in our time, negatively contributes to this process: increased fat mass accelerates the loss of muscle tone and lean body mass. While mass tends to be the focus when defining sarcopenia, strength is another factor. We get weaker as we age. But we can slow the decline through exercise and better nutrition.

Loading your body with heavy weights (or lower weights at higher repetitions) fits into the movement recipe, along with the basics: squatting, jumping, pushing, and pulling. Being able to pick up and put down weight, to pull weight to you and push it away from you, and to move through your entire range of motion on a regular basis are all basic movement patterns that help to fend off the demise of muscle mass and strength.

It is inevitable that you will become weaker and slower. Losing your independence does not have to be the end result. You can live well until the day they die. You can remain quite independent. But you have to put in the work to earn that result.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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