Hippocrates said, “That which is used develops; that which is not wastes away.”
As adults steadily move towards old age, it becomes progressively more important to maintain health and fitness through a variety of exercises. More and more, research is showing that strength training exercises in particular are the key to a long and healthy retirement.
On the flipside, if efforts are not made, the age-related loss of muscle mass can become a slippery slope from which it’s hard to recover.
Why is strength training so important? And does that mean other exercises, like walking and stretching, can be ignored? Keep reading to find out!
Why do we lose muscle as we age?
As we get older, people tend to become more sedentary – whether it’s due to health issues, physical limitations, or just plain old fatigue. In addition, as we age:
· Hormone levels change
· Protein requirements alter
· And motor neurons die
Altogether, this can lead to a condition known as Sarcopenia, or the age-related loss of muscle mass. The word literally means flesh loss – from the Greek ‘sarx’ (or flesh) and ‘penia’ (or loss).
This loss of muscle can affect posture, stability, and balance. It is one of the reasons older adults fall so often, but it can be fixed through regular exercise and strength training.
Sarcopenia can begin to affect adults as young as 30 years old, but it’s not until around age 50 that the effects become very noticeable. At that point, muscle mass typically decreases about 30% during the next two decades. Even more dramatic losses begin after the age of 80.
It is important to note that age-related muscle loss can vary greatly from person to person.
Those that were active in their younger years are far more likely to stay fit as they age – that’s why most experts suggest adults start weight training well before they reach middle age.
Signs of sarcopenia
Often, the signs of sarcopenia can be vague.
Symptoms such as feeling physically weaker or suffering from frequent falls might just be attributed to old age or to other health issues. However, if you or a loved one experiences one or more of these signs and can’t explain why, you should talk to a health professional:
· Diminished muscle strength
· Feeling physically weaker over time
· Having more difficulty lifting common objects
· Poor hand grip strength
· Difficulty walking or rising from a seated position
· Becoming exhausted easily and having difficulty carrying out daily tasks
· Unexplained weight loss
Fighting age-related muscle loss
Ultimately, the only way to stay ahead of the aging process is by staying active and fit.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, older people who lift weights can slow or even reverse the age-related loss of muscle mass. In fact, they can actually GAIN strength, as well as better mobility, mental sharpness, and better metabolic health.
Experts say that a combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, and balance work are the key to preventing or reversing the condition, with a particular emphasis on the strength training portion.
According to one Harvard study, to gain more muscle mass, older adults need to engage in a PRT (progressive resistance training) program. Dr. Thomas Storer, director of the exercise physiology and physical function lab at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says “It should be tailored to the individual with the goals being progression and improvement. It should focus on individual elements like specific exercises, load, repetitions, and rest periods, and should challenge but not overwhelm.”
A typical weight training program might include:
· 8 to 10 exercises that target all the major muscle groups
· sets of 12 to 15 reps, performed at an effort of about 5 to 7 on a 10-point scale
· 2 to 3 workouts per week
Of course, it is best to check with your doctor before starting any exercise program. Once you’ve been given the go-ahead, a qualified personal trainer can help set up a sequence of exercises tailored to your abilities and can monitor you for safety and technique.
And remember: All of the exercise in the world won’t help if you don’t eat appropriately! Always try to get lots of protein (shoot for 30 grams per meal), check your vitamin D levels, and eat your Omega 3s.