The Importance of Strength Training As You Grow Older

Paul Harter Paul Harter
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Most people think of strength training as a young man’s pursuit of vanity.

It certainly is that. The demographic that engages in strength training more than any other are males in their 20’s. But, the demographic that can benefit most from engaging in strength training more than any other are post-menopausal women, followed very closely by men of like age. That is scientific fact. Permit me to explain...

For your physical and mental health, as well as for your longevity, exercise in general is an imperative generally accepted as fact. It burns energy and helps you lose weight (or avoid gaining weight). Exercise, together with maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet and getting enough quality sleep, are the most important ways to reduce your risk of many cancers, strokes, heart attacks, type II diabetes, mental decline and dementia (as well as many other diseases and conditions). As for the exercise, the good news is that it generally does not matter what kind of exercise you do to reduce your risk of these age-related diseases and maximise the chances that you will add many high-quality years to your life. So long as the exercise is of adequate quantity and quality, you can get it many different ways – riding a bicycle, playing tennis, walking or running in the countryside, going to a spin class – doing whatever you enjoy most.

So, what's the magic in strength training?

It is the only type of exercise that will adequately address two of the age-related diseases that are the consequence of a physiological process that virtually everyone experiences, and that both the medical profession and the health gurus in the popular press rarely talk about – sarcopenia and osteopenia. Never heard of them? You’re not alone. They are the reason old people are frail. They are a principal reason why quality of life declines as we age. They are both best addressed before we’re old. And strength training is the best medicine.

Sarcopenia is the progressive loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength. Humans reach their peak muscle mass between age 20 and 30. After reaching our peak, we start to lose our muscle mass progressively over time until death. Strength training, properly and adequately performed, when combined with a healthy diet that includes adequate protein, promotes muscle retention and development.

Osteopenia is the reduction in the protein and mineral content of bones. It happens to all of us as we age and particularly to women as a result of menopause. It can lead to osteoporosis, as can deficiencies in Vitamin D and calcium. Strength training, properly and adequately performed, when combined with a healthy diet (or supplementation) that addresses relevant vitamin and mineral deficiencies, promotes bone health, including the maintenance of bone density. 

I call sarcopenia and osteopenia diseases. That is what they are. People (who do not strength train and address the related dietary requirements) are at high risk of contracting these diseases. Many people, including people in the medical profession, prefer to call them syndromes or conditions – just the inevitable consequence of ageing. The whole point is that they are avoidable, even reversible, at least to a very meaningful extent for a very meaningful period of time. Yes, we all die – but our longevity and the quality of our life in our later years may very much depend on our engaging in adequate strength training now.

Many people dislike strength training. Often the aversion relates more to the environment than the activity – many people dislike large, loud, sweaty commercial gyms. Or they dislike appearing in public in shorts and a t-shirt. Here, there are solutions. They include home gyms and small fitness studios that are often quite private.

Many people don’t know where to start and fear injury. Working with an experienced, qualified fitness coach or personal trainer is an obvious solution. Finding a good one can be challenging, but they are out there to be found.

Many people cannot find the fun in performing load bearing exercise. Here again, working with a fitness coach with a proven track record of changing people’s habits and behaviours can work. The science tells us it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to create a new habit (with a weighted average of 66 days). Eventually we all get there. I cannot promise you will love it one day (though you might). For most people, at a minimum, strength training becomes a pleasant or at least tolerable part of life.

Some people (particularly women) are resistant to strength training because they don’t want big muscles. It’s a scientifically groundless fear. Women produce a fraction of the testosterone that men produce. Testosterone is a sex hormone that (among many other things) promotes muscle growth. With strength training, women achieve a well-toned and strong body – not bulky muscles. Men who start strength training have the ability to add a few pounds of muscle in their first year or so of training, because they produce far more testosterone than women do. Once reasonably well trained, with all the will power and hard work in the world, the most muscle that most men are able to add is around one pound (two in the extreme) per year. You have no doubt seen pictures of men and women with very large and bulky muscles (like competitive bodybuilders). You can be certain that the subjects in question are either genetic outliers or take anabolic steroids to achieve their results. 

So, strength training is the key to having a well-toned body. A well-toned body is nothing more than a body with less fat and more lean muscle mass that an untoned body. And, more importantly, you can stop and even reverse sarcopenia and osteopenia – and preserve your quality of life for far longer than you would have thought possible.

If you are not now engaging in adequate strength training, it’s time to start. Every time you cross paths with a frail elderly person, take that as a reminder.

Why engage in strength training?

You cannot afford not to.

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