Fire Life

Mid career and the Myth of the Aging Metabolism

By Michael Krueger

Photo by Todd Toussaint

One word comes to mind whenever I think about people in the middle years of their careers and that word is complacent. In most professions, complacency simply gets you “down sized”; in firefighting it gets you dead.

The Trouble with Age

You’ve worked your tail off for quite a few years, you’ve paid your dues and now you are a veteran. You feel that you’ve earned some respect and some perks as well. Longevity means something so long as you accomplished something during those years, simply getting by and putting in your time isn’t supposed to be what it is all about. You are here to grow, learn, mentor and thrive not just make it through to retirement.

Too often the “old timers” forget that fires don’t care how long you’ve been a firefighter. Heart attacks and injuries don’t take into consideration that you only have 4 or 5 years to retirement. It’s too easy to “remember when” and forget to “remember how”. 

 

Fire Service Veterans

I’m of a different mindset than many in the mainstream when it comes to fitness and age. So often you will see books and articles about fitness after 40 or 50 or whatever age group they want to market to, implying that an older body is fundamentally different. Truth is if you have been eating well and regularly exercising then age doesn’t matter all that much. On the other hand, if you haven’t been exercising at all and eating trash for years, age does make a difference. Perhaps more precisely, the many years of poor nutrition, lack of exercise and a sedentary life style, makes a difference.

The only real difference between a 21-year-old firefighter and a 41-year-old firefighter is 20 years of experience. As far as strength and conditioning there should be no difference. There can’t be because the job requires it to be that way. The victims of fires, floods, earthquakes, tornados and car crashes don’t care how old you are, they just need help. The question you need to ask yourself at this point in your career is; “Am I fit enough to put all of my experience to good use?”

Old Enough to Know Better

Are you as strong as you were in your youth? Is your endurance still where it needs to be? If they aren’t, don’t blame an aging metabolism; it isn’t at fault. For far too long we have believed that as we age our metabolism just naturally slows down and that there isn’t anything that can be done about it. Now we understand that that this just isn’t so. It’s nothing more than a convenient excuse used by those who are getting fat and lazy.

Metabolic slow down is a result of the loss of active muscle mass. The less muscle you have the fewer calories you need, but that doesn’t mean you’ve stopped consuming them. In the US, the average 35 year old man gains one pound of fat each year until he hits his 60’s and women gain fat at a slightly faster rate. That’s at least 25 pounds of metabolically inactive fat even though their body weight stays the same.

Many people watch their weight by checking the scale. This can be deceiving since they may be losing muscle mass and gaining fat mass without realizing it. Soon their clothes don’t fit like they used to. People used to believe that was caused by a natural “settling” with age and once again, there was nothing they could do about it. It turns out they were just maintaining their scale weight by replacing each pound of muscle that they had lost with a pound of fat. To make matters worse a lumpy pound of fat takes up more space than a smooth pound of muscle (the exact ratio is subject to much debate) which is why they look soft and squishy and their clothes don’t fit like they did before.

This “stealth fat” weight gain is in addition to any additional “scale weight” fat gain which for the average American is about another pound per year. So by the time the average American hits retirement age they have added about 50 pounds of fat since their mid 30’s, even though their scale weight has gone up “only” 25 pounds.

Gaining those 25 pounds of scale weight fat is no mystery; you get fat because you eat too much. To prevent that weight gain, get your diet under control. You lose those 25 pounds of muscle mass because you don’t strength train in order to maintain them; this is a classic example of “use it or lose it”. It is imperative to prevent that yearly loss of metabolically active muscle in order to avoid the stealth fat gain. In a best case scenario you will continue to add muscle mass as you age, bypassing the problem altogether.

Case Study

In the somewhat distant past, a 22-year-old male joined the United States Coast Guard; he weighed 165 pounds. Over the next 31 years his weight ballooned to 186 pounds. Despite this weight gain, he can still easily don his dress uniform and it fits great with two minor exceptions. The dress coat is a little snug under the arms and across the chest, and his pants are a little loose around the waist.

When he was 22 years old his body fat was about 15 percent. So, he carried about 24 pounds of fat and 141 pounds of lean mass. At 53 years of age, his body fat is about 13 percent, or still about 24 pounds of fat, but now he carries 162 pounds of lean mass. That’s 21 additional pounds of metabolically active muscle.

What’s the deal here? What happened to the aging metabolism effect?

It’s no mystery really; it is the predictable result of regular strength training, aerobic conditioning and a sensible diet.

Granted, this is only anecdotal evidence that the aging metabolism is a myth, but from my personal experience I can say that diet and exercise will not only keep you from getting fat, but you may even improve over time.

Fitness Facts and Aging

There are a couple of considerations with regards to aging that I can’t deny. One is that you will need more time to recover. That is easily taken care of; just make sure you get enough sleep. Secondly, make sure your diet is in order. Taking in less than optimal nutrition is no longer an option. That one is easily addressed as well; eat like a grown-up!

Lastly, don’t let your attitude grow old. As a veteran you have learned things that the rookie has yet to find out. The vet knows everything that the kid knows, and a lot that he doesn’t. Mentor the new recruits and give them the benefit of your experience and set a god example. Don’t let them make the same mistakes that you did; let them make new ones instead.

Take care of yourself mind and body, share your knowledge and wisdom and you will have a wonderfully enjoyable and productive career; and a long happy retirement as well.

 

Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected].