When you hear of someone talking about strength training, what do you think of? A bodybuilder? Someone like Dwayne Johnson? Or maybe it’s a young guy in a tank top and sunglasses at the gym grunting hard as he lifts weights with his friends yelling at him. While most people strength training are in their 20s or 30s, it’s just as important for people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s to do it. Maybe even more important. And to continue doing it throughout one’s life.
What is strength training?
First, let’s discuss what strength training is. It’s not about pushing weights until you’re blue in the face trying to get so big you can’t fit through the door. In fact, very few of us have the body type to look like that no matter how much training we do. Strength training also doesn’t require you to lift heavy weights either.
Strength training occurs whenever you work your muscles above and beyond what is normally done in daily activity. It’s relative to your current strength and activity. For someone who sits in a chair all day, it can be as simple as repeating leg extensions or getting up and down in the chair a few times before progressing to more advanced activities. Or if you’re used to walking on flat surfaces, walking up hills will work your legs more and result in them getting stronger.
Changes in Muscle and Strength with Age
Maintaining one’s strength is of great importance as we age. However, the common trend is to do less as we age. Much of it is unconscious, but at the same time voluntary. In our jobs, there’s usually a trend from early to late career of more to less activity. It’s also common to downsize once in retirement. This often means less of a yard (or no yard) and fewer stairs in the house. The result? Less activity. Think of how many times you go up and down the stairs in a day. Ten times? More? Over a year that’s 3650 flights of stairs you are no longer doing, and a lot less activity. As people probably don’t think of stairs in their house as activity, it’s often not replaced with other activity once it’s gone.
The problem with declining activity is it can lead to an ongoing cycle of further declines, loss of independence and poor health. As our activity levels decrease, so does our strength and fitness. This may lead to further declines in activity as common activities become more difficult. Often we think the extra effort needed to do the same tasks as we get older is due to age. In fact it’s mostly due to a lower level of fitness from doing less activity. If this cycle continues, then performing general activities of daily living such as laundry, stocking the pantry, going grocery shopping and washing dishes, will become a challenge and make independent living difficult.
Peak muscle mass and strength occurs between 20 to 35 year of age. After which both decline. It’s estimated muscle mass declines by about 0.5% per year reaching nearly 1% per year in the mid-70s. Strength declines even faster at 3-4% for men and 2.5-3% for women per year. By a person’s eighth decade, more than a 30% of muscle mass can be lost. An extreme condition of loss of muscle from ageing is referred to as sarcopenia. Sarcopenia occurs in about 10% of adults 65 years and older. While it’s not entirely clear what accounts for this loss, it might be tied to natural decreases in various hormones and neural changes with age.
Benefits of Strength Training
The good news is that regular activity and exercise can help prevent sarcopenia and is considered one of the better treatments for it. Strength training can also improve balance and coordination. Much of the initial gains in strength come from increased coordination. This improved coordination is important to reduce chances of falling. More than one in four people over 65 years fall each year in the US. And about 1 in 5 falls results in an injury such as a hip fractures or head injury. Exercise is considered one of the best ways to reduce fall risk.
Other benefits from strength training include reducing arthritis pain, improving sleep, strengthening bones and reducing back pain. And just 12 weeks of strength training (three times per week) resulted in improved quality of life in people ≥60 years. A similar program has also proven effective at treating depression. And even if you’re a regular runner, walker or cyclist, adding strength training may help prevent overuse injury.
It doesn’t take much to keep up one’s strength or regain it back. And you don’t need to go to a gym to do it (although you can if you wish). It can be done in your own home. Simple exercises like arm raises with light weights (something like 2-10 lbs is fine, even soup cans or water bottles) improve upper body strength and make it easier getting those plates down from the kitchen cupboards. There are numerous YouTube videos that you can look up to get ideas and even follow like this one or this one which uses a resistance band.
And every little bit counts. While many people in the gym do multiple sets (a set is a group of exercises repeated such as doing 10 arm raises) when strength training, the greatest gains come from doing that first set. Doing another set (after a rest) is helpful but it doesn’t double the speed in which you get stronger. And remember to warm-up as well.
If being social is more of your thing, many community centres and pools offer strength programs targeted to older adults. Activities like water aerobics are great, as the water provides resistance to movement while also providing balance support. This is ideal for people with mobility issues. Of course someone in their 70s can join any adult program but adherence to a program increases when one exercises with people of similar age.
It’s also never too late to start. There are plenty of inspirational stories of people starting strength training later in life, such as Joan Macdonald who began at 71 years of age. Even people over 90 years of age can benefit. In this study, strength training improved the ability for the participants to get up and out of their chair. For many of us, that may seem like a simple task now, but struggling to get up out of a chair is common in later life and substantially limits a person’s independence and quality of life.
For an older adult starting a strength training program, it’s good to first get a sense of your starting point. Do you have any physical limitations or challenges getting activities around the house done that weren’t a problem before? Or are you quite active and want to strengthen up a bit more? This will help guide you in what sort of program to start. Speaking to your doctor can also be of benefit before beginning. If you go to a community gym, ask one of the certified fitness trainers for guidance or even have them set you up with a program.
Keep in mind to start slow as sometimes our enthusiasm gets the better of us. It’s often not until the next day when we may feel sore muscles from a workout. Some minor soreness that disappears afterwards (a day or two) is generally okay but not if it’s ongoing. If it continues, take a rest. Over time, with consistent strength training, any muscle soreness will go away faster.
For most people, a strength program that is followed 2-3 times per week is good enough. As you get stronger, you may want to increase the weight or do more repetitions or sets. Mix in some aerobic activities like walking, swimming or whatever you enjoy on the other days and you’re all set.
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This post was originally published on July 11, 2018 and updated on October 27, 2021.