Strength training as you get older
We all know we'll get weaker as we get older but does it have to be that way? Evidence is pretty overwhelming for exercise at any age but there is an emerging group for focussed research on the older generation.
Strength training is particularly important for women approaching menopause due to the drop off in oestrogen. As with the female triad in younger women, the lack of oestrogen in the body can lead to osteoporosis (weakening of the bones). With falls being one of the biggest causes of death and injury in the older population, making sure your body is a robust and balanced as possible is a good idea as you get older.
Strength training 2-3x per week has been seen to reverse sarcopenia (the loss of muscle). As well as this it can improve bone density, decrease diabetes risk, decrease development of arthritis, decrease the risk of depression and improve cardiovascular health. All in all a lot of good side effects!
In a review of studies in older adults it was concluded that older adults should do 4-8 exercises using 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps. The use of 70-80% 1 rep max saw good results showing there's no reason not to go heavy. As with any strengthening programme weights should be progressed gradually but there is no reason an older person shouldn't be aiming to get to high loads.
This is a commonly used picture from Wroblewski et al.'s study which highlights how significant a difference exercise can make:
It shows how a 70 year old's muscles can look the same as a 40 year old's when training regularly. The middle picture shows the withered muscles and surrounding fat that unused muscle turns into when you do nothing.
A lot of older people use exercise such as walking to keep healthy but it is unlikely to be enough to get these sorts of results. You need to challenge the body to adapt so as long as the work is hard enough to work up a sweat you should be keeping the muscles firing.
If you are approaching menopause or your mum/aunt/grandma is please make sure you have some strength training in your routine. If you're not sure what to do at the gym, find a good trainer to get you started. If you'd rather workout at home, then it might be worth investing in a few weights to make sure the body weight work you're doing challenges the muscles enough.
If you are under 40 then getting into good habits of strength training now and finding exercise you enjoy enough to continue on to your later years is key.
Liu CJ, Latham NK. Progressive resistance strength training for improving physical function in older adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD002759. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD002759.pub2.
Seguin, R et al., The Benefits of Strength Training for Older Adults American Journal of Preventive Medicine , Volume 25 , Issue 3 , 141 - 149
Taaffe D, R, Henwood T, R, Nalls M, A, Walker D, G, Lang T, F, Harris T, B, Alterations in Muscle Attenuation following Detraining and Retraining in Resistance-Trained Older Adults. Gerontology 2009;55:217-223
Wroblewski, A., et. al. Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in Masters Athletes. The Physician and Sports medicine. Volume: 39, No.3. DOI: 10.3810/psm.2011.09.1933