Never Too Old to Start Weight Training

Story at-a-glance -

  • Older adults can gain a two- to three-fold increase in strength after just three or four months of weight training
  • Seniors improved strength and endurance, decreased risk of falls, lowered their risk of chronic disease and were able to walk nearly 40 percent farther after weight training
  • Even seniors with an average age of 90 improved their strength up to 180 percent after just eight weeks of weight training

By Dr. Mercola

The older I get, the more I realize how important weight training is. It now makes up the majority of my workouts, and if you're middle-aged or beyond, I encourage you to make this a regular part of your exercise routine.

The fact is, even though you might not care as much about how your muscles look as you did in your 20s (but then again, you might!), you certainly care about how your muscles function.

Without weight training, your muscles will atrophy and lose mass. Age-related loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia, and if you don't do anything to stop it you can expect to lose about 15 percent of your muscle mass between your 30s and your 80s.1

Slow Down Muscle Loss and Boost Your Strength Three-Fold

Muscle loss happens gradually, so you probably won't notice it occurring at first. But by the time you're in your 70s, when sarcopenia tends to accelerate, you might start to feel weaker and find you can't do things, physically, that you used to do. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM):2

"A gradual loss in muscle cross-sectional area is consistently found with advancing age; by age 50, about ten percent of muscle area is gone. After 50 years of age, the rate of loss accelerates significantly.

Muscle strength declines by approximately 15 percent per decade in the sixties and seventies and by about 30 percent thereafter. Although intrinsic muscle function is reduced with advancing age, age-related decrease in muscle mass is responsible for almost all loss of strength in the older adult."

No one wants to lose their strength or their ability to function independently. If you listen to Willie Murphy, the 77-year-old power lifter and grandmother in the video above, you'll hear a first-hand account of what strength training can do for you as you get older.

What you'll hear, overwhelmingly, is that it can not only help you feel stronger and healthier, but it can give you the ability to shovel your own snow, carry your groceries and pick up your grandchildren.

By helping you maintain your muscle mass and strength, strength training can, quite literally, give you the ability to keep on living. On the contrary, if you stop working your muscles, the consequences of sarcopenia are steep and include:3

  • Increased risk of falls and fractures
  • Impaired ability to regulate body temperature
  • Slower metabolism
  • Loss in the ability to perform everyday tasks

Now, what do you have to gain by starting weight training – even if you're already "older?" As ACSM explains:

"Given an adequate training stimulus, older adults can make significant gains in strength. A two- to three-fold increase in strength can be accomplished in three to four months in fibers recruited during training in older adults. With more prolonged resistance training, even a modest increase in muscle size is possible.

…With increasing muscle strength come increased levels of spontaneous activity in both healthy, independent older adults and very old and frail men and women. Strength training, in addition to its possible effects on insulin action, bone density, energy metabolism, and functional status, is also an important way to increase levels of physical activity in the older adult."

The Many Benefits of Weight Training for Older Adults

Weight training is important throughout your life, but in many ways it becomes even more important as you age. Even if you're in your 90s, it's not too late. One study found a group of nursing home residents with an average age of 90 improved their strength between 167 and 180 percent after just eight weeks of weight training.4 What are some of the other benefits?

  • Improved walking ability: After 12 weeks of weight training, seniors aged 65 and over improved both their leg strength and endurance, and were able to walk nearly 40 percent farther without resting.5
  • Improved ability to perform daily tasks: After 16 weeks of "total body" weight training, women aged 60 to 77 years "substantially increased strength" and had improvements in walking velocity and the ability to carry out daily tasks, such as rising from a chair or carrying a box of groceries.6
  • Decreased risk of falls: Women between the ages of 75 and 85, all of whom had reduced bone mass or full-blown osteoporosis, were able to lower their fall risk with weight training and agility activities.7
  • Relief from joint pain: Weight training strengthens the muscles, tendons and ligaments around your joints, which takes stress off the joint and helps ease pain. It can also help increase your range of motion.8
  • Improved blood sugar control: Weight training helps to control blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.9 It can also reduce your type 2 diabetes risk; strength training for at least 150 minutes a week lowered diabetes risk by 34 percent compared to being sedentary.10

Weight training can also go a long way to prevent brittle bone formation, and can help reverse the damage already done. For example, a walking lunge exercise is a great way to build bone density in your hips, even without any additional weights. Strength training also increases your body's production of growth factors, which are responsible for cellular growth, proliferation, and differentiation. Some of these growth factors also promote the growth, differentiation, and survival of neurons, which helps explain why working your muscles also benefits your brain and helps prevent dementia.

Is Super-Slow Weight Training Best if You're Older?

By slowing your movements down, it turns your weight-training session into high-intensity exercise. The super-slow movement allows your muscle, at the microscopic level, to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle.

This is a beneficial and safe way to incorporate high-intensity exercise into your workouts if you're older and have trouble getting around. You only need about 12 to 15 minutes of super-slow strength training once a week to achieve the same human growth hormone (HGH) production as you would from 20 minutes of Peak Fitness sprints, which is why fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff are such avid proponents of this technique.

The fact that super-slow weight training gives you an excellent boost in human growth hormone (HGH), otherwise known as the "fitness hormone," is another reason why it's so beneficial if you're older. As you reach your 30s and beyond, you enter what's called "somatopause," when your levels of HGH begin to drop off quite dramatically.  This is part of what drives your aging process. According to Dr. McGuff, there's also a strong correlation between somatopause and age-related sarcopenia. HGH is needed to sustain your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which produce a lot of power. It's also needed to stimulate those muscles.

"What seems to be evident is that a high-intensity exercise stimulus is what triggers the body to make an adaptive response to hold on to muscle," Dr. McGuff says. "We have to remember that muscle is a very metabolically expensive tissue… If you become sedentary and send your body a signal that this tissue is not being used, then that tissue is metabolically expensive. The adaptation is to deconstruct that tissue…"

People of all ages can benefit from super-slow weight training, but this is definitely a method to consider if you're middle-aged or older. I recommend using four or five basic compound movements for your super-slow (high intensity) exercise set. Compound movements are movements that require the coordination of several muscle groups—for example, squats, chest presses and compound rows. Here is my version of the technique. I also demonstrate a number of exercises in the video above, starting around the 15-minute mark:

  • Begin by lifting the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. In the video above, I demonstrate doing this with a four-second positive and a four-second negative, meaning it takes four seconds, or a slow count to four, to bring the weight up, and another four seconds to lower it. (When pushing, stop about 10 to 15 degrees before your limb is fully straightened; smoothly reverse direction)
  • Slowly lower the weight back down to the slow count of four
  • Repeat until exhaustion, which should be around four to eight reps. Once you reach exhaustion, don't try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it's not "going" anywhere, for another five seconds or so. If you're using the appropriate amount of weight or resistance, you'll be able to perform eight to 10 reps
  • Immediately switch to the next exercise for the next target muscle group, and repeat the first three steps

My Mom Did It and So Can You!

Whether you've never exercised before or have simply fallen off track, today is the day you can renew your commitment to physical activity. Remember, you are never too old to start exercising. My mom is an excellent example, as she didn't start working out until she was 74 and now, at the age of 79, she has gained significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity. After a bit of apprehension at first, she now, as you can see on the video above, loves her workouts and, I'm hoping, will inspire you to get active as well, no matter what your age.

If you're just starting out, consult with a personal fitness trainer who can instruct you about proper form and technique. He or she can also help you develop a plan based on your unique fitness goals and one that is safe for any medical conditions you may have. Just keep in mind that while you need to use caution, you do need to exercise at a level that is challenging to your body. Many make the mistake of exercising with not enough intensity, and this will result in many of your benefits being forfeited.

It's important before you start to adjust your mindset as well. You can use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to let go of any negative beliefs you may have about exercise or your body's ability to grow stronger at an older age. Once you're open, mentally, to becoming fit and strong, your body will follow suit. Do start slowly and gradually increase your intensity while listening to your body. And be sure to give your body ample time for recovery, as well as the proper nourishment to help build your muscles. Amino acids are extremely important as they form the building blocks for muscle. Leucine is a powerful muscle builder.

However, you should avoid amino acid isolates of leucine because, in its free form, it's been shown to contribute to insulin resistance and may lead to muscle wasting. It's far better to get leucine from whole foods, and the best source is a high-quality whey protein. Consuming a high-quality whey protein shake after your workout may help to maximize muscle protein synthesis.11 Finally, in addition to strength training, you should round out your exercise program with other beneficial exercises, including Peak Fitness, balance training, core work and flexibility training. Add this on to regular daily movement – aim for 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day – and you'll soon see your fitness level soar.

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