Exercise: At What Age Should You Back Off On High Intensity Training?

Friday Nov 28 | BY |
| Comments (3)

Senior Race

The chances that you’ll experience serious cardiovascular consequences in your senior years are much higher than for younger people who engage in intense exercise.

Ron loved to run. He also liked to make money and influence political policies, and had high-ranking friends in the government of his state. Running a business came natural to him, as did long distance running.

By 55, Ron was so successful that he had plenty of leisure time for travel and athletic training. He’d been a cross-country runner in high school and college, and still jogged regularly. Ron wanted to preserve his health during aging, so he consulted me for a comprehensive workup and advice on the best ways to optimize fitness and slow down aging.

He appeared healthy, but a few markers on his blood tests suggested potential cardiovascular problems. I recommended he get a full cardiovascular work up, and he said he would when he had the time.

Eventually, he got around to having his heart checked. The cardiologist, traditionally trained but open to healthy lifestyles and integrative medicine, found him healthy. He said that running was hard on the joints, but he didn’t see any other reasons that he couldn’t run. The cardiologist recommended that he lower his LDL cholesterol by eating a plant-based diet and get annual checkups.

And so he ran, training harder and harder for amateur events, eventually running half and full marathons. He changed his diet, took the nutritional supplements I recommended, and in a six months his total cholesterol and LDL came down to the normal range.

At age 65, Ron felt fantastic. He wanted to test himself further, so entered the San Diego marathon. He trained hard and consistently, and entered the race hopeful to set a record in his age class.

He didn’t make it. Ron collapsed thirty feet in front of the finish line, and never got up. He died before the paramedics arrived. His family, including grandchildren, carried his body over the finish line.

Ron was heroic. But the conventional medicine of the time failed him.

I’m no psychic, but I’m convinced that if Ron had modified his exercise routine, he would have lived 10-15 more years in good health.

The Benefits and Perils of High Intensity Exercise

In September 2014, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings published several papers about the effects of vigorous exercise on health and aging. The scientific evidence is convincing: regular exercise promotes health and slows aging.

But, the kind of exercise that benefits healthy aging and longevity is not the same kind as the high-intensity regimens needed for endurance sports, like long distance running.

Scientist and doctors also agree that along with a plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet, regular moderately intense exercise between 30-45 minutes every day maintains cardiovascular health throughout life. Peak cardiac performance and superb respiratory fitness, however—though necessary for competitive athletics—can have negative effects on older adults.

I’ve also seen negative cardiovascular effects in my patients, mostly men over 55, who exclusively perform intensive aerobic exercise on treadmills, stationary bicycles, elliptical machines—or in runners like Ron.

If you already have a heart condition, especially if hidden as in Ron’s case, excessive exercise can make it worse, or even kill you. Cardiac-overuse injury is just as detrimental as other forms of repetitive trauma. Research and clinical evidence show that heavy-duty aerobics can lead to arrhythmia, increased plaque formation, and greater oxidative damage and inflammation. The combined toll results in premature aging of the heart.

Professional Athletes Live Longer

What about the evidence found in new studies that shows elite athletes who train heavily over a lifetime live longer and have a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer than the average?

It seems that optimizing cardiovascular and respiratory function by physical training does more than just increase blood flow and oxygen to cells. It also improves muscle tone and helps maintain muscle mass during aging. Exercise helps your body better utilize glucose. Too much glucose leads to diabetes and is one of the major factors that accelerate aging. All these benefits add up to longevity.

The key is to do high intensity training when you’re young, and moderate exercise when older.

Ancient Wisdom Can Inform Modern Science

The human body evolved to move, but not all the time or too much at once. It’s possible to have a long, healthy, vibrant life full of enjoyable physical activity. Overwhelming evidence indicates that when you’re sedentary, make poor nutritional choices, and participate in risky lifestyle habits like smoking cigarettes or drinking too much alcohol, accelerated aging occurs and your chance of a premature death is greater than those who exercise on a regular basis and eat a healthy diet.

Remarkably, most of these negative effects can easily be reversed with exercise. Even Alzheimer’s disease is slowed, and in some cases improved, with exercise. The key is hitting the Goldilocks zone—not to much or too little.

The ancient Chinese figured it out and recommended Taiji, the practice of slow rhythmical movement that improves balance and restores peace of mind. Classical yoga teachers recommend intense postures during youth and moderate ones during middle age. For those over 60, yoga practitioners advise more breathing exercises and less aggressive stretching. Modern science is just now finding out that age-related training is best.

Never Stop, But Don’t Over Do It

At what age should you back off on high intensity training? Some say, never. If that’s you’re answer, the risks are great.

The chances that you’ll experience serious cardiovascular consequences in your senior years are much higher than for younger people who engage in intense exercise, even if you’re generally healthy. I see this regularly in my patients. For example, those who do intense aerobics more than three times per week have a higher incidence of arrhythmia.

Everybody’s different. Some people are remarkably fit and active during aging, even into their 60s and 70s. The safety threshold is individual. From my clinical and personal experience, when you’re in your 40s, both men and women can still do everything. Fit and healthy people can keep it up into the 50s. Even if you’re in stellar physical shape, though, we all slow down in our 60s. By the 70s, we can still do almost everything, but much slower and our joints hurt more.

The transition zone is between 45 and 65. Push your limits, if you can, for as long as you can, but keep this zone in mind. Gradually transition from full throttle to controlled acceleration. Modulate your routine and adapt styles of exercise.

Tips for Fitness During Aging

  • Moderately intense, regular exercise
  • At least one recovery day per week
  • Cross train; don’t do the same exercise every day, year after year
  • Maintain muscle and bone mass
  • Stay flexible
  • Eat a plant-based, organic diet
  • Keep hydrated

The key is not to go to the extreme, and don’t do the same intensive exercise every day. The exceptions are walking, swimming, Taiji, and yoga, all which can be done daily. If you go intense, back off once in a while. Get in some quality recovery days. Massage and acupuncture do wonders for mind and body. Get more sleep. Nourish your body with good organic food. Drink plenty of pure water, green tea, and fresh green vegetable juices.

Older, Faster, Stronger is the title of an interesting book by Margaret Webb that encourages people to shake off their midlife malaise. I agree. Don’t slack off. Like Ms. Webb, explore your body’s wonders. Don’t be afraid to exercise. But, don’t push too much if you’re over 65.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

Visit Dr. Williams’ Website: https://drjewilliams.com/

And Follow on Facebook:



Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Deane Alban says:

    Since I hit 60 I’ve been wondering how hard to push myself going forward. I’m an avid cyclist but notice more and more than everyone seems to be passing me by! I’ve wondered if I should just accept that or push myself harder. After reading this I’m leaning more towards acceptance. I hadn’t really thought about the concept that the heart is a muscle and needs recovery time like our other muscles. Thank you for these great insights.

  2. Satori says:

    This was very helpful. Thank you & Happy Thanksgiving weekend!

  3. June Hanson says:

    Much needed, wise advice. Balance, everything in moderation. Exercise changes in various stages of our lives. Did high impact aerobics in my 50’s and 60’s. Alternating days, weights & cardio equipment. Running Beach, until, Knee required arthroscopic surgery.

    All this puts one on a “High” you really get addicted. Feel guilty, if you miss a day. When second knee needed surgery, decided to change. Not realizing, my body was inflamed. Gastrointestinal spasms led to one in coronary artery. Didn’t even realize I was having heart attack , five years ago. Nitro patches, sublingual, nothing could stop the suffocating angina. No one could help me. That is until, I met you Dr Williams. Responding to your wonderful therapies, finally got spasms, under control. Food and suppements under control.

    Changed to moderate, heavy exercise in pool, alternating with weights. Brisk walks. Occasional, short bouts of low impact aerobics. Gentle Yoga, called Bend, Breathe and Balance. Cooler weather, recumbent crosstrainer, climbing 3,000 steps in 45 minutes, no exertion, also works arms, great cardio workout, all while sitting down.

    Five or six days of alternative exercise. If, I miss a day, no guilt. Addiction is gone Now, I look forward and enjoy exercise. Best of all, my visits with You, even your acupuncture!!!

    Comments are closed for this post.