Increasing physical frailty as we age is not inevitable! It used to be assumed as fact that after age 40, people lose approximately eight percent or more of their muscle mass each decade. While this will happen if we are not exercising and working on developing strength through resistance training, newer research suggests that we can get stronger and leaner no matter what age we begin this type of exercise! Muscle is extremely important, especially for seniors, and not only because it keeps us strong. Muscle burns calories and helps us maintain our weight, and it contributes to balance and bone strength. Simply said, without our muscle strength, we can lose our independence as we age.
A recent article in “Science Daily” explains how progressive resistance training can lead to significant muscle strength no matter what age we are. By “progressive” they mean changing the resistance as we improve with training. The best thing for someone to do who has been fairly sedentary is to begin with body mass weight. Exercises we can do using our own body weight include squats, standing up out of a chair, modified push-ups, lying hip bridges, as well as non-traditional exercises that progress through a full range of motion, such as Thai Chi or Pilates and Yoga.
After this kind of resistance training, we can start using bar bells and other weights. Even light weights (three-five pounds) are enough to make a change, if we are doing 12 repetitions at a time. From there we can increase weight gradually. As resistance training progresses and weights and machines are introduced, experts recommend incorporating full body exercises and exercises that use more than one joint and muscle group at a time, such as the leg press, chest press, and rows. These are safer and more effective in building muscle mass.
In the “Science Daily” article, Mark Peterson, Ph.D.(a research fellow in the U-M Physical Activity and Exercise Intervention Research Laboratory at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation) was interviewed. He said, “Our analyses of current research shows that the most important factor in somebody’s function is their strength capacity. No matter what age an individual is, they can experience significant strength improvement with progressive resistance exercise even into the eighth and ninth decades of life,” he says. This is good news.
I think it is easy to believe that if we have not been active or lifted weights previously, that in “senior” years we will simply have to watch our muscles atrophy and we will become weaker with each passing year. These recent studies have shown that we can see significant change no matter when we begin a resistance program, even into our 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.
The New York Times also reports on this potential change in muscle mass, “In an encouraging animal study from last year, elderly rats that had been sedentary throughout their adult lives were put on a running program. After 13 weeks, their leg muscle tissues had filled with new satellite cells, a specialized type of stem cell that is known to build and repair muscle. Comparable experiments in older people have yet to be done, though”.
Another study looked at 40 competitive runners, cyclists, and swimmers, ranging in age from 40 to 81, and found no evidence of deterioration- the athletes in their 70’s and 80’s had almost as much thigh muscles mass as the athletes in their 40’s! Other recent studies have had similar results. This should be exciting news for those in their “Golden Years”!
Push ups are one exercise I started to do in my 40’s because it takes all of my strength to lift my body weight, and they never seem to get easier – they will continue to be a challeng so I will continue to do these as I age. Do you have a favorite strength exercise that you started to do as you got older?