INTERVIEW: Lou Schuler on aging and exercise

Lou Schuler is witty, smart, and one of my favorite fitness writers. He and Alwyn Cosgrove are co-authors on The New Rules of Lifting series, and one of their recent titles, The New Rules of Lifting for Life, hit me where I am. Lou agreed to talk with me again here, as our last interview was such a good time.

Lou, I found your book right when I was kicking myself for taking up boxing at the not-so-tender age of 40. You say the gym brings out the teenager in all of us, and I've got the MRI scans to prove it. Is there a way that our spunk and fight can be balanced with the realities of aging?

Our mistakes make us wise. My biggest mistake is that I started playing basketball in my mid 30s. By the time I finally quit playing, in my mid 40s, I couldn't even run or jump anymore. I had to walk up and down the court.

Now, in my mid 50s, I think my hardest-earned skill is my ability to limit the damage when I tweak something, or when I'm under the weather.

Take today, for instance. I had planned to work out several days in a row, doing lower-volume workouts each day, just to see if I felt better than I do with my traditional three-times-a-week program. But when I woke up this morning I realized I'm developing a cold. Working out today will only dump new stress on top of the stress of fighting off an illness. So I'll hold off on my experiment for a day or two.

The great thing about doing this as long as I have -- since 1970, when I was 13 -- is that I'm free of black and white thinking about fitness and diet. There's always tomorrow.

Yes, but don't you miss basketball? It's depressing when age wins out.

You know, in general, I really miss playing sports. For all the pain, there's something about friendly competition that's more fun than any other type of exercise I get. I can remember my best shots and steals and blocks with more clarity than some of the pivotal moments in my kids' lives. I know that makes me sound bad as a father, but really, it says more about my athletic abilities. We're talking about maybe six really cool plays in 10 years.

But let's use this to pivot to something that your readers might care about, which is their own fitness programs. What I learned from sports--and this has some support in the research--is that we always work harder when we have that adrenaline going. We try a little harder when we think we're letting down teammates, or when we see someone we consider a peer going faster or lifting something heavier. Just that little bit of competition, or peer pressure, or whatever it is, seems to unlock something that makes us try harder, and ultimately achieve more.

And trying harder is what you push for in the book--you mention a study showing that resistance training can actually reverse aging in skeletal muscle. I like how you put it: "It's inevitable that you'll decline from your peak--whatever it may be, and whenever you might achieve it--but it's not inevitable that you grow feeble."

This is something I think about a lot, especially since my mom began her decline into Alzheimer's. When I was a kid I thought she was pretty awesome. She was a small woman, but she had biceps like apples. My older brother and I would bring friends over to see Mom's muscles. I think she maybe indulged us once, and after that made it clear it was not cool to put our mother on display.

I remember one time I asked my dad to make us a muscle for us. If my petite mother had these big, round muscles hiding in her skinny arms, then my big, fat father must've had biceps like cantaloupes. After all, he was a former marine drill sergeant and MP and a pretty scary guy. When he tried...nothing. Whatever he had couldn't even rise through the fat. He told us it was because he had a bad back. 

That was the big fitness lesson in my young life: It was better to be thin but have flex-worthy muscles than to be fat. I never wanted to be a guy who couldn't make a muscle. As it turned out, I had my mom's genetics for thinness, but I must have my dad's genetics for muscle bellies because for all my years of lifting I'll never have biceps half as good as my mom's. 

So those were my earliest role models: the strong parent who was never injured and could do just about anything around the house, and the weak parent who always had an excuse for not doing anything. 

But the story takes a twist as dementia set in. Mom stopped eating during her last years living alone. We live a thousand miles away, so I only saw her once a year at most. My siblings who lived closer thought her diet was reduced to chocolate, peanuts, and a light beer every night. I don't think she intentionally starved herself, but it had the same effect. She deteriorated pretty fast. We'll never know to what extent dementia was inevitable, or how much the diet may have contributed. 

That's why I think so much about strength and aging these days. Even now, at 86, my mom's still ambulatory. Her strength didn't stop her mental decline, but it kept her independent for a lot longer than anyone expected. My dad, on the other hand, died in his sleep when he was 69, which is only 13 years older than I am now. Given his weight and all his other self-imposed health problems, it's kind of amazing that he made it that far. 

If you told me those were only two choices, I'd take my mom's path. With 30 more years, I'll at least be able to see my kids grow up. But of course I don't see those as the only choices. I hope that all the things I'm doing now -- the workouts, the protein-rich diet--will maybe keep the lights on a little longer. And with my books I hope to get as many people as possible to join me.

Protein and weights, then. But what do we do about the complaints from our joints and connective tissues? Is this why we're directed to yoga and the pool the older we get?

If someone is steered from the weight room to the pool or yoga studio, I'd want to hear why. If the joint problem is caused by laxity--that is, too much range of motion--then yoga could very well make it worse. If the problem is tightness in the shoulder capsule, then swimming could make it worse.

With just about any non-acute injury, blood is your ally. You need to get those nutrients into the joints. You do that by working with light to moderate weights, or some percentage of your own body weight, through a pain-free range of motion. 

It feels kind of weird to try to give generic rehab information, but I think the research is clear enough that the worst thing we can do is sacrifice strength and lean tissue. That's guaranteed to make your life worse down the road.

New Rule #3 is "Your body won't change without consistent hard work." No matter a person's age, it's never too late to begin, is it?

No, it's never too late. Or too early. I should note here that even without changing your body in a dramatic way, you can still get the health benefits that come with training. And you'll certainly feel better.

But let me pivot back to where we started: 

With age, we certainly have some disadvantages, relative to our younger selves. We've lost some strength, endurance, and muscle mass. Our bodies don't recover as fast from one workout to the next. On a percentage basis, we can make some pretty impressive gains, but we're starting from a lower base, and we'll peak at a lower level than we would have if we'd started earlier. 

But the one big advantage we have is, as I said, the wisdom of our mistakes. We can pull back before we push ourselves too far. When something starts to hurt, we understand it'll only get worse if we don't figure out what the problem is and take steps to fix it, even if the most important step is giving it time to rest and recover. It doesn't make for a very inspiring Facebook update--"Today I was awesome! I spent the whole day not aggravating the elbow I tweaked in my last workout!"--but it gives us a fighting chance to do the most important thing, which is to show up for the next workout ready to go.

As long as we keep going, we win. Take that, youth and inexperience!

Check out all of Lou's books at .


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