Occasionally we get letters from readers asking for fitness advice. A 60-year-old man recently wrote:
"I keep to a stringent exercise regimen, with weight training every other day and aerobics on a treadmill every day. I also eat well, keeping my weight close to what it was when I was 18. However, whatever I do and regardless of how hard I work out, I am unable to tighten the skin in the midsection (for six-pack abs). Can you tell me if this is just age, or if there is something else I can do?"
Let's dispense with the bad news first -- the stuff you can't do much about. Some of that sagging may be loss of skin elasticity due to the normal aging process, the same process that makes our faces wrinkle. Loose skin can also be chalked up to genes, and if that's the case, please feel free to blame your parents. But blame yourself if you've spent copious time in the sun, since that can prematurely age skin, making it head south.
Now for the things you can change.
We spoke with Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise, who suggests examining diet first.
This reader said that he eats well, but how that diet breaks down is important. He should include some good fats in that diet, because they contribute to skin health, fueling production of collagen, a protein found in the connective tissue that helps keeps the skin smooth, taut and wrinkle-free. Good sources of polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats are avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
As for workouts, McCall says those may need some tweaking as well. The same strength-training workouts week in and week out may not be taxing the musculoskeletal system and thus may not be building new muscle. That's especially important as we age, because starting around age 40, men lose about 1% of their muscle mass a year.
"Doing more intense weights and explosive training will help the body create more testosterone, which produces muscle growth," McCall says. "That could help fill out the skin and create that tightness. If you're just lifting the same weight every time, you're not stimulating any muscle development."
Because power lifting requires heavier weights and specific lifting techniques, consider getting some help from a personal trainer to learn the ropes before embarking on a program.
We understand that not seeing the desired results is frustrating, but there is a point at which vanity might need to take a back seat. Or maybe stay in the front seat, but be very quiet.
"What I try to get people to think about," McCall says, "is that if you train for the mirror, you're never going to be happy. When I work with clients I ask them what is their performance goal -- do they want to run, ride a bike? I tell them to train for function, and then form follows function. The type of training they do will produce a good body."
Sports such as swimming, soccer, martial arts or basketball work the entire body, with the muscles performing in unison, not in isolated bouts as with weight training. If sports aren't on your roster, you might want to check out some masters programs, such as U.S. Masters Swimming and USA Track & Field.