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There's one thing I've known for certain since as far back as 1969: Exercise is good for the body and the spirit. All throughout my life, it has kept me relatively healthy and happy.

What I didn't know however, was that all those days of spending 90 minutes and upwards in the gym pounding every heavy weights were also counterproductive in many ways. For one thing, I was doing far too many sets per bodypart — and therefore, not recovering and growing new muscle fibers as fast as I could have.



For example, after about 45 minutes of intense training, I was also pushing my adrenal glands to produce excessive amount of cortisol in response to the chronic amount of stress my body was under. Cortisol, produced by the same adrenal glands, is a hormone released under long-term stress. Too much of it is not good, as this is not only the fastest way to loose muscle mass and strength, but also to age rapidly.

A Harvard study examining how much exercise is beneficial — and how much is not so good — demonstrated that a cumulative exercise expenditure of 2000 calories per week was the threshold for positive results. In other words, after expending approximately 300 calories a day during exercise, the positive effects of exercise on the body slowly diminish. This is why, when looking at anti-aging programs relative to exercise curves, we see a significant drop-off in benefits past a certain level and duration of exercise. This is explained by three biological mechanisms:

First, after about 40-45 minutes of any type of exercise — and especially intense weight training — so much cortisol has entered the bloodstream that a shutdown of eicosonoid production will begin. Eicosonoids are autocrine hormones (such as prostagladins) that control all function at a cellular level — i.e., inflammation, vasodilation/constriction, heart rate, body temperature, immune function, etc. In this case, cortisol secretion is a response to stress. As eicosonoid production stops, the body is temporarily allowed relief from pain, which it is sensing from too much from intense exercise. For example, a shutdown of PGE1 and PGE2 (pro-inflammatory/anti-inflammatory) prostagladins would commence. Since pain in this case is relative to some type of inflammation this would allow the body to cope in the short term.

If this persisted, however, all eicosonoids would shut down and the body's function would come to a screeching halt. This is the same dilemma that doctors face when giving people corticosteroids. At first, all symptoms magically disappear; however, within a few days T-cells begin to plummet and heart irregularities and other key physiological dysfunctions begin to appear. This is because the autocrine hormone eicosonoids are being shut down at the cellular level.

Because of their power, these hormones also vanish in seconds. They are, however, the primary activators and modulators of all body functions and, once they shut down, other hormonal systems (endocrine and paracrine) are sure to follow. Small amounts of cortisol are not so dangerous, because once dissipated, the eicosonoid production returns to normal. As you might surmise, being in the gym 2-3 hours every day is an effective way of increasing to a potentially counterproductive — and even dangerous — level in the body.

Secondly, during moderate exercise like walking, insulin levels diminish and blood glucose levels arise in response to the exercise-related increase in glucagon (the pancreas releases glucagon to balance blood glucose levels). This primarily glucose restoration mechanism works smoothly as long as exercise is maintained at a moderate level. But if the intensity increases, cortisol is released to stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels. More cortisol, more problems.

Third, the more intensely you exercise, the more ATP you must produce in the mitochondria for energy. The more ATP you produce, the more free radicals you make, and a certain percentage of those free radicals slip by the energy production phase. Once "loose" in the body, these unpaired electrons search out other electrons to latch onto and oxidize. These excess free radicals search out essential fatty acids (because of their high-polyunsaturation), DNA (which they can damage), protein, fats and a host of important vitamins that we call antioxidants. Making too many free radicals is almost assuredly a passport to aging because they can potentially damage so many essential nutrients and biologically necessary compounds. Too much exercise, along with eating too many calories, is the most effective way of making excessive amount of free radicals.

Now, some of you might be wondering why you should lift weights at all, if moderate aerobic exercise is more beneficial for lower insulin levels, cardiovascular health and slowing the aging process. Nonetheless, lifting weights does have three wonderful biologically enhancing things:
First, it strengthens muscles and, therefore, assures you greater functionality when you get older.

Second, weight training prompts the hypothalamus to activate the pituitary gland, secreting growth hormone and sending other releasing hormones (and a second messenger known as cyclic AMP) to the testicles to secrete increased levels of testosterone. GH and testosterone work partially in unison to repair micro-tears through protein synthesis in muscle tissue. The result is slight muscular hypertrophy, which increases strength.

Third, the more muscle mass you carry, the more bodyfat you burn — even at rest. This is a simple metabolic function of the thyroid in response to the anabolic state you are creating. Bigger muscles need more calories to function and use calories more efficiently. Also, since loss of muscle, strength and accumulation of bodyfat are all markers of aging, increasing lean mass and strength and decreasing bodyfat percentage moves your anti-aging report card up three notches. Some other points:

* When weight training, work out no more than 45 minutes to minimize cortisol production. Skip the "easy stuff" and go right into the multi-joint exercise.

* Never do single — or double-rep sets. Keep it to a minimum of six, and preferably 8-10 smooth, rhythmic repetitions.

* There should be an artistic ease to doing a set. "Intense" doesn't mean shaking, squirming, screaming and jerking your body around. These are all signs that the weight is too heavy and that you're a novice with a big ego. This stupidity also puts a huge stress on joints, but more importantly, the neurological system is being taxed and cortisol levels are going through the roof. Reps should be smooth, rhythmic motions and contractions.

* Do your aerobic training after weight training, so that you can use maximum effort for heavy weights — and to help better stabilize insulin and blood glucose levels. Make it no more than 20 minutes of cardio on lifting days and less than 30 minutes on off-days. The level of intensity should always be moderate 60-65 percent of maximum heart rate. You shouldn't have a burning sensation in your muscles while doing aerobics. A really brisk walk is best suited for your cardio needs.

* Work your weight training schedule so that you are training each bodypart once in an 8-9 day rotation. The body has no concept of a seven-day week and, often, large bodyparts need more rest time.

* Don't hold your breath too much — this will increase cortisol production (especially when under stress), raise blood pressure and decrease immune function.

* Find the exercise that suit your body type and stay with them, possibly varying them intermittently. Don't do exercises that stress your joints!

* Enjoy your time in the gym, but make it brief. The more efficient you can get in and out of there, the less cortisol and excessive free radicals you will make. Also, when you're in and out of the gym quickly, you'll look forward to going back. After all, you want to have the same feeling entering the gym at 60 that you did at 18.

- Taken from Exercise For Men Only (Paul Burke's Over-40 Fitness Column)