Strength Training Reverses Age-Related Muscle Loss

Is your current physical condition as good as you would like it to be?  What would be the best way to improve it? 

We’re told that a walk or a bike around the park when the weather is nice, or a brisk stroll in an air-conditioned mall should be enough activity to keep us in pretty good shape.  It’s true that it might keep your heart and lungs working decently well, but it’s not enough. 

Strength is something we all lose as we age.  Simple physical tasks we took for granted years ago like squatting down and getting back up, lifting things into your truck, and putting things away overhead are often problems when people get older and a source of potential injury.  If you don’t use your muscles, you become less capable of using them.

seniors lifting weights

Why strengh training is so important as we get older

I started doing the Canadian Armed Forces fitness program when I was an early teen to reduce my childhood chunkiness (my German mother is a good cook and even better baker and believed her children only looked healthy with plenty of “meat on their bones”).  I’ve kept up working out ever since with only a few periods of neglect.

After age 50 you lose 1 – 2 per cent muscle strength per year and after age 60 that speeds up to 3 – 4.5 per cent per year.  The loss of strength also means the loss of muscle mass.

This wasting away of muscle tissue is called sarcopenia.  You may not have heard of the term before, but we’ve all seen it in frail, elderly people whose back and shoulders are bent over from a combination of osteoporosis and sarcopenia.  Because of the symptoms of sarcopenia, the decreasing muscle mass and joint flexibility means your balance can suffer as you get older leaving you open to falls which often result in broken hips and loss of independence.

But the loss of strength can be slowed down quite a bit with a proper weight training program so you may want to consider hitting the weight room at the gym. 

Exercise should be a part of everyone’s life regardless of age and cardiovascular training and stretching have their place in a balanced fitness plan.  But it is progressive resistance exercises that build muscle which allows us stay active and independent for as long as possible.  

Related:  Live a Long and Healthy Blue Zone Life

Benefits of weight training

If designed appropriately, a weight training program can offer benefits that enhance a person’s overall quality of life and including:

  • Increased strength and flexibility
  • Improved joint health, balance and stability (reducing the risk of falling)
  • Enhanced metabolic fitness (glucose tolerance and cholesterol count)
  • Increased bone density (which decreases osteoarthritis)
  • Help prevent or control conditions as varied as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis
  • Reduce the need for expensive prescription medications
  • Help maintain your ability to do normal daily activities
  • Burn calories so you have greater success with shedding those unwanted pounds

Strength training not only helps you regain the muscle you lost it also helps your cells remain younger since exercise slows cell aging.  And exercise doesn’t just make you feel younger. It may actually turn off the aging process in your chromosomes.

It doesn’t matter what age you happen to be, it’s never too late to incorporate strength training into your weekly fitness routine.

Starting out right

First of all, if you’re a beginner, you should have a complete checkup and discuss your plans with your doctor to assess your needs and your current capabilities.  You want to know if some exercises should be restricted.

Next, arrange to get proper instruction.  While there are tons of books, DVDs and YouTube videos available, it’s a good idea to schedule a few sessions with a personal trainer who is trained in working with older people to get off to a good, safe start.  Be smart and do appropriate training for your age and physical condition.

Give your body time to adapt and recover from each workout to get the most benefits.  Warm up first.  Allow at least a day or two of rest to recover.

Pay close attention to proper form when doing resistance exercises. This way you will help to prevent injury by doing an exercise incorrectly.

While your muscles may be sore a day or two after a workout, don’t believe in the old adage “no paid, no gain.”  Strength training should never cause you pain.  If it does, stop right away.

What are the best weight excercises for seniors?

While lifting barbells and dumbbells is the most common form of weight training, bodyweight exercises, Pilates, resistance bands, kettlebells, and various fitness machines can also be used to provide progressive resistance. Even water aerobics is a form of resistance training.

You can begin with bodyweight exercises before you move on to lifting heavier weights – no gym required.

Start with the following exercises:

  • Squats (keep your legs strong so you can get up off the couch)
  • Lunges
  • Push-ups (against the wall, on your knees, or on your toes)
  • Dips
  • Shoulder presses (reaching your hands in the air or with water bottles)
  • Step-ups
  • Bicycle crunches

From there you can start adding weight.

Gradually ease into your workout.  Once you’ve established a routine, make an effort to extend the time and intensity as you begin to build strength and endurance.

Power and function

Strength training is important, but power training is even more important to functional independence. 

You might associate power lifting with massive athletes like Georgian weightlifter Lash Talakhadze who lifted 264kg to win the gold medal in 2016.  You can just hear the weights drop to the ground with a huge clang and the argghhh!

To understand what power training is in our world try this:  stand up from a seated position.  Now sit back down and then stand up slowly to the count of six.  Which one is harder?  It is very common to see someone who has lost leg muscle power to struggle to rise from a chair, using their arms for extra help.

Power is lost about three time faster than strength alone and is more closely related to daily function.

Related: Positive Aging

To train for power you need a slightly different approach than the more common type of resistance training.  You need to reduce the resistance (weight), lift more times, and increase the speed of movement (call it explosive) while still maintaining good form and range of motion.

The bottom line

So, you can see why it is so important to develop a properly designed strength and power training routine so you can avoid muscle loss and reverse it instead. And this is easily achievable no matter what your age.  It’s never too late to start.

Building strength and power is the key to healthy aging, both physically and mentally.

By regularly engaging in a fitness program to make sure your body stays strong you will be helping to maintain your independence for many years to come because it’s been proven that resistance exercise reverses aging in human skeletal muscle.

 “That which is used develops; that which is not wastes away.” – Hippocrates

Do you do any kind of strength training?

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2 Responses

  1. Peter says:

    Morning Marie,

    Another “OUT OF THE PARK “ article… My bride and I go to the YMCA everyday, I spin daily, plus yoga 2 times a week and swim daily for 30 minutes. Laurie does EMT machine along with stair master and some weights…
    My friends there have been giving me a hard time about NOT doing ANY weight training/telling me that even though I am in top shape at 62, weight training to critical as we age. So last week i committed to add 30 minutes every second day to my Y time doing weight training for the complete month of February!!!!
    YOU must have read my min.
    I hope people take heed of your advice.
    Wonderful article/this is what we need/not simply financial stuff which we have already taken care of…
    Best to you and keep up the great work….

    • Marie Engen says:

      Thanks Peter. Unfortunately, we still tend to associate weight training with big bulked up guys like Arnold and women especially don’t want THAT! I’ve been at it for many years and I’m considered to have a small frame, not bulky at all. Plus there’s the bias that older people shouldn’t lift anything heavy but nothing could be further than the truth. Maybe if we changed the name to strength training it will become more acceptable as a good workout for all ages.
      I’m sure you’ll like your new weight strength training program. I know I do.

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