Growing Stronger at any age

How strength training can keep you fit and healthy

A common myth around strength training is that it's exercise exclusively for the ‘young and the fit’ due to a singular requirement to lift massive weights and barbells. This has led to a fear of risk of injury, accident, and potential pain as well as an assumption that it is simply not possible. Strength training is about setting individualised, realistic goals that will enable independence such as being able to carry your own shopping, getting up unaided from a chair, opening jars and bottles or reducing back pain. It is no myth however that exercise is simply only beneficial for your health and wellbeing; and that is no less apparent in older age.

Loss of muscle

The strength of your muscles can contribute to your ability to perform everyday tasks today and in the future. The privilege that is ageing comes at a price however and we naturally start to lose muscle mass once we are around 30 years of age, and this age-related muscle loss is known as sarcopenia. According the healthline website as much as three to five percent of your muscle mass each decade after age 30 can be lost if you are physically inactive. As women have less muscle mass than men and live longer, this muscle loss tends to affect females more acutely than males. This can ultimately lead to mobility issues such as difficulties performing daily tasks, such as getting up from a chair unaided, and as a result can increase the risk of loss of independence.

Sarcopenia is also accompanied by loss of bone density which occurs at a similar rate to muscle loss. If we lack in strength and balance, we increase our risk of trips and falls and in turn our risk of fracture. In the UK alone around a third (approximately three million) of people aged 65 and above experience falls. Of this number, NICE have reported that around 75,000 will result in a hip fracture, from there the statistics become alarming as only half of hip fracture patients will avoid needing long term care as opposed to returning home in good time. Find out more information about hip replacements and why they are on the increase and information around waiting lists in the Hip Replacement blog post. 

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Preventing muscle loss through regular exercise

Physical activity focused on resistance-based strength training can help to increase muscle mass and improve strength and physical performance. Strength training also builds bone density and helps to preserve energy and increase independence. This type of exercise is safe for all ages as it can be adapted to the individual’s fitness levels, interests, and personalised goals.

Regular strength training provides a whole host of benefits including:

  • Reduced aches and pains
  • Improved mobility
  • Lower risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Improved decision-making skills
  • Reduced risk of depression and dementia

Recent studies published in a NICE report have concluded that there is evidence that indicates exercise can help people living with osteoarthritis to manage their condition. Exercise types that are recommended include muscle strengthening and aerobic exercise that is tailored to the individual to help with managing a healthy weight and minimise joint pain. Dr Paul Chrisp, director at NICE, commented that beginning the exercise journey may be ‘uncomfortable for some people at first’ but he also went on to say that ‘there is evidence, however, which shows muscle strengthening and aerobic exercise can have an impact on not just managing the condition, but also providing people with an improved quality of life.’

Case study: reversing ageing of muscle mass through exercise

Don’t just take my word for it. Let science do the talking in this case study involving older adults reversing their ageing of muscle mass through exercise. 

A study into exercise reversing ageing was co-led by Buck Institute faculty member Simon Melov, PhD, and Mark Tarnopolsky, MD, PhD, of McMaster University Medical Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. This involved before and after analysis of gene expression profiles in tissue samples taken from 25 healthy older men and women who underwent six months of twice weekly resistance training, compared to a similar analysis of tissue samples taken from younger healthy men and women. This study was the first to examine the gene expression profile, or the molecular ‘fingerprint’, of ageing in healthy disease-free humans.

Results showed that in the older adults, exercise resulted in a remarkable reversal of the genetic fingerprint back to levels similar to those seen in the younger adults. The study also measured muscle strength. The older adults were 59% weaker than the younger adults, before exercise training, but after the training the strength of the older adults improved by about 50%, meaning that they were only 38% weaker than the young adults!

The results of this study are incredible and provide evidence to the array of health benefits that strength training can provide; namely, reversing muscle loss that comes with ageing whilst building strength. The added benefits that come with this, such as reduced risk of type two diabetes, depression and joint and back pain, will be explored in the benefits of strength training section below. 

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Strength training advice from the medical experts

The UK Chief Medical Officers advise strength training twice per week to keep muscle, bones, and joints strong. This should consist of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise a week. This can also consist of a combination of both moderate and vigorous exercise. Alongside this it also recommended that sedentary time is minimised and broken up where possible with activities such as short walks.

What is the difference between vigorous and moderate intensity exercise you may be asking? Well, the key marker of moderate intensity exercise is when you still are able to talk whilst moving so this may be in the form of a gentle swim, cycle, or walk. Whereas the key marker of vigorous intensity exercise is fast breathing and having difficulty talking so this may be in the form of a run, climbing stairs, or playing a sport such as tennis. The NHS website provides a comprehensive breakdown of exercise guidelines for older adults.

It is important that if you have a medical condition and/or have not exercised for a long period of time to contact your GP or a medical professional before commencing any exercise. There are a whole host of different exercise activities available, from yoga to hiking to walking, so there is something out there for everyone and all fitness abilities.

Creating a strength training program

Taking the next step once you have decided you have the desire to implement strength training into your lifestyle may feel slightly daunting so I have broken down a variety of exercise activities below that may be of interest to you.

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Team sports: It was reported in research conducted by Decathlon in 2019 that a staggering 44% of adults aged over 65 were taking part in sport eight times more in a typical month comparing to only 29% of 25-34 year olds exercising the same amount of time. Playing tennis for example improves muscular strength, balance, coordination, and agility. Find your nearest tennis court by using the find a local court feature on the LTA website.

Yoga: Yoga is renowned for deep breathing exercises that compliment slow movements in order to build strength and practice spiritual techniques. There is no age or ability limit when it comes to yoga, and it can be as gentle or as intense as you need it to be due to the wide range of movements and adaptations that are possible. There are a wealth of resources available from online classes on YouTube to information on the basics to get you started. It is also possible to practice yoga from your own living room with the aid of YouTube.

Thai-Chi: Thai Chi is a form of gentle exercise that has similarities to yoga in that it consists of slow movements accompanied by deep breathing. It differs however in the fact that it is an ancient Chinese tradition that was originally developed for martial arts, so some styles tend to focus on those elements whilst others focus on sustaining good health. There are a wealth of resources available from online classes on YouTube to information on the basics to get you started. It is also possible to practice Thai Chi from your own living room with the aid of YouTube.

Age UK exercise classes: Age UK offer an extensive range of exercise classes to suit all fitness levels including Zumba, Thai Chi, and chair-based exercises. Use their Find an exercise class near you feature on their website to locate the nearest class to you and start reaping the rewards of a motivating and enjoyable class today.

Gym classes: Gyms across the UK are now catering for older adults and offering classes that are adaptable to varying fitness levels. Most gyms will typically offer yoga and Pilates strength training classes as well as cycling, swimming, and strength training fitness classes. Another class that is growing in popularity is BodyBalance which is a mash-up of Pilates and yoga which helps to strengthen your ligaments and improve posture. 

It can be hard to motivate yourself to break old habits and make that change towards taking up regular exercise. Have a read through some helpful tips on breaking habits and staying motivated in the Healthy Habits: How to make them stick blog post.

Benefits of strength training

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It is common knowledge that being physically active and in turn building muscle can help with maintaining a healthy weight as well contribute towards general good health. But what are the benefits for older adults exercising and completing strength training on a regular basis? We will break down the key benefits and at the same time debunk the myths around it being inaccessible and too high risk.

Strength training can help to reduce the risk of:

Falls and depression: Risk of falls and depression is predicted to be reduced by a staggering 30% by UK Chief Medical Officers. The strength that you will inevitably build through regular strength training will massively reduce the risk of a fall and at the same time the risk of loss of independence and in turn depression that could arise from possible loneliness and mobility limitations. It is well researched that exercise boosts your mood and contributes towards good mental health and wellbeing.

Joint and back pain: Risk of experiencing joints and back pain is predicted to be reduced by an impressive 25% by UK Chief Medical Officers. This type of pain could lead to mobility issues, mental health decline, as well as a whole host of offer issues. Through avoiding joints and back pain you can continue to live a full, healthy, active lifestyle.

Type 2 diabetes: Risk of developing type 2 diabetes is predicted to be reduced by an astounding 40% by UK Chief Medical Officers. Type 2 diabetes is a condition that can affects a person’s day to day life through having to take medication, change diet, and have regular check-ups. It can also lead to serious problems with your heart, nerves and eyes. However, exercise is a huge factor that can help prevent developing this serious health condition.

Moving forward with strength

The positive news is that in virtually all cases, it’s never too late to start introducing the guidelines discussed above into your lifestyle. If you are also interested in other ways to stay healthy then visit the blog post Healthy and Hydrated on the Usay Compare website. 

As a Personal Trainer I have had the privilege of working with clients from the ages of 18 to 80 and everything in between and have seen first-hand the improvements possible in terms of quality of life and maintenance of current lifestyle habits. It’s never too late to start getting stronger and staying strong, at any age.

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