Mixing strength, cardio at 81 to keep moving

Michael Cotsonas was the top male in the MUSC Plank Challenge last February. Months before, the 80-year-old had spine fusion surgery.

How long can you hold a plank?

For those who haven’t stepped foot in a gym in the past, a plank is an isometric core strength exercise that involves holding a push-up position, typically using your elbows and feet to support your weight.

It looks easy, but give it about 30 seconds and the average person’s body will start to quake and burn. The simple plank is considered one of the best core strength exercises practiced today.

Michael Cotsonas held a plank for 11 minutes and three seconds to win the MUSC Plank Challenge in February 2014.

He could have gone longer, but stopped out of prudence.

Cotsonas worried he might pop the rods and disc that were put in his spine as part of fusion surgery in the fall of 2013.

But to hold a plank for more than 11 minutes, when the gold standard is two, isn’t too shabby, not only for someone recovering from back surgery but who was 80 years old.

Cotsonas, now 81, is a testament to both lifelong and vigorous exercise as an older senior citizen.

The retired engineering firm accountant and former St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church sexton has been the oldest regular in MUSC Marine Boot Camps since 2007.

In addition, he tries to do two circuit strength training workouts per week at the Mount Pleasant Senior Services Center.

In addition to his 11-minute plank, Cotsonas can knock out 166 push-ups in two minutes.

Though he dislikes running, Cotsonas still does it and uses a method developed by Jeff Galloway that alternates two minutes of running with one minute of walking. He ran a dozen races, including three Cooper River bridge runs, from 2008-2012.

And all that doesn’t wear him out for a continued passion for landscaping. Earlier this month, he raked up 24 bags of leaves.

Staying active, though, has been challenging for Cotsonas. Since 2007, he has endured four other surgeries, including prostrate, two hernias and for a bone spur in his foot.

Efforts by Cotsonas, who has a waistline of 32 inches, should pay dividends in his golden years, according to a study published Dec. 22 in the journal Obesity by researchers at the Harvard University School of Public Health.

They found combining aerobic activities with weight, or resistance, training is key to preserving muscle and avoiding weight gain, particularly age-related belly fat.

The long-term study was conducted between 1996 and 2008. It included more than 10,000 healthy men aged 40 or older whose body mass indexes varied widely.

BMI measures body fat by looking at weight and height.

The researchers analyzed the men’s physical activity, weight and waist circumference to determine which exercises had the most significant effect on the men’s waistlines, or the amount of belly fat they had.

The men who did 20 minutes of weight training daily had a smaller increase in belly fat than the men who spent the same amount of time engaging in moderate to vigorous aerobic activities, such as stair climbing and yard work, the study found.

“Because aging is associated with sarcopenia, the loss of skeletal muscle mass, relying on body weight alone is insufficient for the study of healthy aging,” study author Rania Mekary, a researcher at Harvard’s department of nutrition, said in a university news release.

“Measuring waist circumference is a better indicator of healthy body composition among older adults,” Mekary explained. “Engaging in resistance training or, ideally, combining it with aerobic exercise could help older adults lessen abdominal fat while increasing or preserving muscle mass.”

Meanwhile, the men who became more sedentary over the course of the 12-year study had a larger increase in belly fat.

“This study underscores the importance of weight training in reducing abdominal obesity, especially among the elderly,” study senior author Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology, said in the Harvard news release.

“To maintain a healthy weight and waistline, it is critical to incorporate weight training with aerobic exercise.”

By Cotsonas’ efforts to keep running, he’s also decreasing his chances for a health problem that plagues older seniors.

A study by Humboldt State University published online in the journal “PLoS One” looked at people older than 65 who either ran or walked for exercise.

Those who “jogged” at least 30 minutes three times a week were less likely to have age-related physical decline in walking than walkers.

In fact, joggers were 7 percent to 10 percent more efficient at walking than those who didn’t jog, according to Justus Ortega, associate professor and director of Humboldt’s biomechanics lab in Arcata, Calif.

“What we found is that older adults who regularly participate in high-aerobic activities — running in particular — have what we call a lower metabolic cost of walking than older, sedentary adults. In fact, their metabolic cost of walking is similar to young adults in their 20s,” Ortega said in a university news release.

Metabolic cost, which refers to the amount of energy required to move, naturally increases with age.

High metabolic cost makes walking more difficult and tiring. A decline in walking ability is a major predictor of health problems in older adults.

Study co-author Rodger Kram of University of Colorado at Boulder said, “The bottom line is that running keeps you younger, at least in terms of efficiency.”

Besides longevity, Cotsonas says exercise keeps him from “getting sluggish and depressed” and that “endorphins do wonders.”

But he also has more he wants to do, including entering more plank contests and winning an age group award at the 38th Cooper River Bridge Run and Walk on March 28.

“I need to live another 20 years so I can read and re-read my 2,000-book library,” he says, reeling off book subjects from Greek and Roman history and Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dante to running, gardening and Christianity. “I’ve been asked to do a roundtable (discussion) on the American Revolution and want to do newspaper articles on the battles of Stalingrad, Midway and the Bulge — turning points of World War II.”

How’s that for a zest for life?

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.