It might surprise you that strength training has some proven anti-aging benefits. Many people believe that strength training is only for people who care about bodybuilding, but the reality is that it can help add more years to your life, and more life to your years. Whether you are a man or a woman, in your 20’s or your 80’s, strength training will keep you younger longer.
The thing that got me interested in this topic is all of the benefits I have seen in my own health since I took up strength training a couple years ago at the age of 49. I’m physically stronger and my body is in better shape than I was at age 35. It’s as if I’ve been able to turn back my biological clock.
This all got me thinking about whether there are any scientifically proven strength training benefits specifically for older people. Can strength training become a personal fountain of youth? As I have researched the topic, it turns out that the answer is “yes”!
The effects of aging
Aging is a natural process we all go through. Aging in and of itself isn’t a problem except when it begins to affect your overall quality of life. Some of the normal health issues that accompany aging are:
1. Muscle weakness
As you age you lose muscle mass, a condition called Sarcopenia. People who are physically inactive lose between 3 and 5 percent of their muscle mass per decade after age 30, and it accelerates at around 65. This is a problem because it causes you to become weak and can contribute to falls and fractures. (source: WebMD)
There are a number of possible causes of Sarcopenia, including a decrease in muscular nerve cells, a decrease in hormone levels, and a decrease in the body’s ability to synthesize protein. Strength training has been shown to be useful for both the prevention and treatment of Sarcopenia.
Resistance exercise in particular seems to activate a muscle stem cell called a satellite cell. With the infusion of these squeaky-clean cells into the system, the mitochondria seem to rejuvenate. (The phenomenon has been called “gene shifting.”) After six months of twice weekly strength exercise training, the biochemical, physiological and genetic signature of older muscle is “turned back” nearly 15 or 20 years. (source: New York Times)
Resistance training has been reported to positively influence the neuromuscular system, hormone concentrations, and protein synthesis rate. Research has shown that a program of progressive resistance training exercises can increase protein synthesis rates in older adults in as little as two weeks. (source: WebMD.com)
2. Skeletal weakness
As we age, our skeletons tend to become more subject to arthritis (joint inflammation), osteoarthritis (cartilage breakdown), and osteoporosis (bone weakness). These can lead to pain, decreased mobility and a higher risk of fractures leading to life-threatening falls.
Lifting weights offers numerous benefits to help manage arthritis pain. Exercise keeps muscles around affected joints strong, lubricates the joints, decreases bone loss and helps control joint swelling and pain. (source: Arthritis.org)
People with mild to moderate hip osteoarthritis may be able to avoid hip surgery if they exercise, according to a study published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases in 2013. The study showed that people who participated in an exercise program for one hour at least twice a week for 12 weeks were 44 percent less likely to need hip replacement surgery six years later compared with a similar group of people who did not exercise. Also, those who exercised reported improved flexibility and ability to perform physical activities compared with those who did not exercise.
Osteoporosis can also be prevented and treated through strength training. Like muscles, bones become stronger when they are active. Weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones by making them produce more cells. (source: Arthritis.org)
3. Lower energy
Strength training is one of the best ways to boost your metabolism. Testosterone and DHEA, the hormones that affect strength and energy levels, decrease as you age. But incredibly, just 12 weeks of resistance training can significantly increase the level of free testosterone and DHEA, according to a study published this year in the journal of the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology. (source: Theglobeandmail.com)
4. Changes in physical appearance
As you know, as we age it is common to put on additional abdominal fat. As muscles and the skeleton weaken, posture also suffers. And there is also the issue of saggy, droopy skin.
Strength training is especially important for keeping off belly fat. This so-called visceral fat, which surrounds your internal organs, is particularly dangerous for your heart. Mekary and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that healthy men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training had less of an age-related increase in abdominal fat compared with men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic activities. Strength training also increases the number of mitochondria, the energy-burning structures inside cells. (source: Health.harvard.edu)
Strength training also helps to improve skin tone. You can lose weight other ways, but include strength training to retain muscle tone and skin elasticity (avoiding droopy skin).
As stated above, muscular degeneration accelerates as you age, and that tends to be reflected in your posture. But strength training helps you keep your muscle mass longer and preserves the muscle tone required for good posture.
5. Diminished brain function
Resistance training can slow the cognitive decline associated with aging. A study led by Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia showed that lifting weights improved memory and staved off the effects of dementia. It also improved the seniors' attention span and ability to resolve conflicts.
“Where previously we had seen positive associations between aerobic activity, particularly walking, and cognitive health, these latest studies show that resistance training is emerging as particularly valuable for older adults,” said Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, in a statement. (source: Healthland.time.com)
Exercise and eating well are always beneficial, especially as you age. But strength training specifically can help combat many of the physical problems associated with aging, specifically:
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that strength training is only for body builders. Strength training is good for everyone, and the sooner you get started, the greater the benefit. But it’s never too late.
Here are some references to how to get started in strength training for older adults:
Never Too Old to Start Weight Training
Strength Exercises for Older Adults
Growing Stronger: Strength Training for Older Adults
And if you are younger and think that this post isn’t for you, think again. If you aren’t currently strength training, get started now. Take a look at my workouts.