Everybody ages. Nothing we can do about that. The question is, what can we do to age gracefully? In other words, what can we do to keep in the best possible physical and mental shape, for as long as possible? And beyond that, why should you care?
Well let’s look into it. Here’s what happens when we age.
Loss of Muscle Mass
Beginning as early as in our 40s, our muscle fibers shrink, resulting in a loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia), strength, balance, and coordination. A lack of physical activity, poor diet, smoking, alcohol use and unlucky genetics can all contribute to this decline.
You’ll see different terms used for weight lifting:
- Weight Lifting
- Strength Training
- Resistance Training
- Pumping Iron
Weight training and pumping iron specifically mean lifting weights, while resistance training or strength training may refer to body weight training or calisthenics.
Loss of Bone Mass
Also beginning in our 40s, we start to lose bone mass or density (osteopenia). This happens to both men and women, but especially to women after menopause. The bones lose calcium and other minerals, which can result in osteoporosis, which is responsible for more than two million fractures year, and affects nearly 10 million people in the US. Resistance training strengthens bones by promoting the production of more cells, which aids in the prevention of osteoporosis.
Loss of Brain Size and Functioning
Normal aging results in structural brain changes, including that your brain shrinks and there are reductions in specific cognitive abilities, including instance processing speed, executive functions, and episodic memory
There are other changes that happen in our bodies as we age, but suffice it to say that our bodies progressively decline. So how do we change that? What about that “Fountain of Youth?”
THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
It’s resistance training. Resistance training can reverse most aspects of aging all the way down to your gene level. This happens because resistance training activates the production of muscle stem cell satellite cells. When these satellite cells are introduced into the system, the mitochondria apparently rejuvenate in a process called “gene shifting.” The result is that after just 6 months of resistance training 2-3 times per week, the biochemical, physiological and genetic signature of older muscle is “turned back” nearly 15 or 20 years.
Resistance training positively influences the neuromuscular system, hormone concentrations, and protein synthesis rate. And our bodies respond very quickly – it can take as little as 2 weeks for a regular program of progressive resistance training to increase protein synthesis rates in older adults.
Resistance training helps us regain our strength, balance and coordination, and also improves bone mass and density, protecting us against osteoporosis and lowering the chances of a broken bone if we fall. Regular, progressive resistance training also improves your muscle’s longevity profile at the molecular level.
Look, all exercise is good, and regular aerobic exercise like walking, swimming, running, or cycling strengthen the heart and lungs and improve tone, but resistance training is the only type of exercise that can substantially slow or reverse the declining muscle mass, bone density, and strength that were once considered unavoidable parts of aging.
As we age, basic cognitive functions including attention, memory, and higher-level tasks like multi-tasking decline. Research shows that aerobic training and resistance training helps stave off these age-related declines, and even boosts brainpower. It’s interesting that aerobic and resistance training provide complimentary, not overlapping benefits: resistance training improves higher-level brain functioning such as effective multi-tasking, learning ability, decision-making, attention span and conflict resolution, while aerobic exercise improves memory.
Resistance training is one of the best ways to increase your energy and boost your metabolism. How? It turns out that just 12 weeks of resistance training can significantly increase your levels of testosterone and DHEA, a hormone your body produces that helps with testosterone and estrogen production. The result is improved bone and muscle strength, slowing age-related changes in your body, strengthened immune system, and improved energy levels, mood and memory.
How Much, How Often?
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends resistance training for people over 50 at least 2 to 3 times a week, focusing on the major muscle groups including arms, legs and core. While lifting light weights provides some benefit, it’s best to stress your body by select a weight you can’t lift more than 8-12 times, or “repetitions.” ACSM recommends both strength training and aerobic activity on a regular basis.
It’s important to keep in mind that the workout intensity is critical, because real muscle fatigue is what triggers our body to change.
If strength training hasn’t been something you’ve been doing right along, it’s important not to jump right into it. Some simple steps to break into strength training slowly can yield big rewards:
- Start strength training 2-3 times per week, and add a rest day between workouts.
- If you don’t know proper form or have pre-existing injuries, it’s a good idea to work with a personal trainer a few times to understand the basics and reduce the possibility for injury.
- While it’s normal to feel sore the day after resistance training, you shouldn’t experience pain while lifting. If you do, that’s a warning sign of an existing injury, so again, it’s a good idea to work with a trainer.
- If you’re a beginner, work with light weights, and slowly add weight as your body adjusts to the new exercise.
- As you get stronger, plan on adding weight once you can lift a weight properly without pain 15 to 20 times.
Is Resistance Training for Everybody?
The scientific research clearly proves that weight training is for everyone, regardless of gender or age. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, a millennial or in your nineties, including resistance training into your fitness lifestyle 2 to 3 times a week can significantly improve the quality of your life. For us over 50 folks, resistance training literally resets our biological clock at the gene level. It’s our self-activated fountain of youth.
Is Resistance Training Safe?
The research shows that it is safe for older adults to train intensely. When you do; when they do, they gain significant muscle mass—albeit not as efficiently as a younger person. A healthy person in his or her 60s can gain 2 to 3 pounds of muscle in six months to a year, about half of the gains that a younger person would see with the same workouts.
If pre-existing injuries such as chronic back or shoulder pain are keeping you from weight training, consult with a trainer for tips and advice on how to modify exercises to make them approachable, or how to build strength so an exercise is possible
And if you’re worried about “getting big,” don’t be. Muscles are highly dense and compact; it takes a significant commitment of time to get big.
Should I Adjust My Nutrition When I Start Resistance Training?
When you do begin resistance training, be aware that a lot of people over 50 don’t get enough protein. The Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center recommends that older adults, especially when strength training, consume at least 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, spread throughout the day. A simple way to calculate your protein is two-thirds of your weight in pounds equals the number of grams of protein you should get per day. I weight 210, so I should be consuming 140 grams of protein per day.
What’s the bottom line?
Adopt a lifestyle that includes regular diverse exercise and a diet consisting primarily of fresh, whole foods. Include both resistance and aerobic training exercises, as they produce complimentary results.
Resistance training helps:
- Improve your muscles strength, resulting in greater mobility, balance and coordination
- Improves bone strength, which helps reduce the risk of fractures
- Speeds up your metabolism and increases your energy
- Helps you maintain a healthy weight and physically attractive appearance
- Improves your brain function
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that strength training is only for body builders. Strength training is good for everyone, and the sooner you get started, the greater the benefit. It’s never too late.