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Study Reveals It's Never Too Late to Start Exercising

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

health benefits of exercise for seniors

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research shows untrained individuals in their 70s and 80s have the same capacity to build muscle as lifelong athletes of the same age, proving it’s never too late to get fitter
  • Without resistance training, your muscles will atrophy and lose mass. Sarcopenia (age-related loss of muscle mass) affects 10% to 25% of seniors under the age of 70 and up to half of those over the age of 80
  • If you do nothing to prevent sarcopenia, you can expect to lose about 15% of your muscle mass between your 30s and your 80s
  • Other benefits of resistance training include improved walking ability and ability to perform daily tasks, relief from joint pain, improved blood sugar control, improved brain health and slowed brain aging
  • Blood flow restriction training may be an ideal muscle-strengthening strategy for most people, but especially for the elderly and the untrained, as it requires just a fraction of the weight you’d typically use in conventional resistance training

Exercise is clearly a foundational aspect of optimal health, and the good news is that it's never too late to start, even if you've never exercised before and/or are older. Studies have repeatedly shown even the elderly can make significant headway when taking up a fitness routine, and recent research adds further support to this notion.

Untrained Seniors Have Unchanged Capacity for Muscle Building

The study,1 undertaken by researchers at the University of Birmingham in England, pitted lifelong athletes in their 70s and 80s against men of the same age who had never participated in a structured fitness program.

The goal was to find out whether untrained individuals have the capacity to build muscle to the extent that lifelong exercisers can. As noted in Neuroscience News,2 "The researchers … expected that the master athletes would have an increased ability to build muscle due to their superior levels of fitness over a prolonged period of time."

The answer is encouraging, to say the least, as muscle biopsies taken before and after exercise revealed both groups had the identical capacity to build muscle in response to exercise. In a press release, lead researcher Dr. Leigh Breen said:3

"Our study clearly shows that it doesn't matter if you haven't been a regular exerciser throughout your life, you can still derive benefit from exercise whenever you start.

Obviously, a long-term commitment to good health and exercise is the best approach to achieve whole-body health, but even starting later on in life will help delay age-related frailty and muscle weakness. Current public health advice on strength training for older people is often quite vague.

What's needed is more specific guidance on how individuals can improve their muscle strength, even outside of a gym-setting through activities undertaken in their homes — activities such as gardening, walking up and down stairs, or lifting up a shopping bag can all help if undertaken as part of a regular exercise regime."

Older Adults Have Much to Gain From Strength Training

My mother, several years before her death, was a testament to the fact that it's never too late to benefit from a fitness program. She began strength training at the age of 74. Three years later, she'd gained significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity. In the video above, which was taped in 2011, she demonstrates her strength training routine.

It's important to realize that without resistance 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% of your muscle mass between your 30s and your 80s.4 Other benefits of resistance training include:

Improved walking ability — After 12 weeks of weight training, seniors aged 65 and over improved leg strength and endurance, and were able to walk 38% 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 their strength, improved their walking velocity and their ability to carry out daily tasks, such as rising from a chair and carrying groceries.6

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.7

Improved blood sugar control — Weight training helps to control blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes.8 It can also reduce your Type 2 diabetes risk.

In one study,9 strength training for at least 150 minutes a week lowered diabetes risk by 34% compared to being sedentary. Doing a combination of weight training and aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, tennis or rowing) lowered the risk by 59%.

Improved brain health and slowed brain aging — Resistance 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.

Blood Flow Restriction Training — An Ideal Choice for Seniors

Sarcopenia, or decreased muscle mass, in the elderly is a big deal. An estimated 10% to 25% of seniors under the age of 70 have it and up to half of those over the age of 80 are impaired with it.10

One of my biggest regrets in life is not knowing about BFR before my parents passed away. They both had severe sarcopenia. I really believe they could have had another 10 years if I had used this for them earlier in their life.

While I've long advocated for high-intensity exercise, including super-slow weight training (which is the high-intensity version of resistance training), I'm convinced blood flow restriction (BFR) training is an even better method, especially for the elderly and the untrained.11

The reason for this is because you're able to significantly enhance your strength and muscle mass using just 20% to 33% of the weight you'd typically use in conventional resistance training.12

I believe BFR is one of the best strategies available to address the epidemic of sarcopenia,13 and for most people who are not competitive athletes, it may be the only form of resistance training they need.

BFR Basics

BFR involves working the muscle while partially restricting arterial inflow and fully restricting venous outflow in either both proximal arms or legs.14 Venous flow restriction is achieved by using thin elastic bands on the extremity being exercised.

The band needs to be tight enough to shut down the venous return to the heart, allowing the venous blood to "pool" in the region of the limb that is being exercised, while loose enough to allow arterial flow-through. The appropriate pressure is about half your arterial occlusion pressure, defined as the pressure needed to restrict 100% of the blood flow from the limb.15

Just be careful not to use wide and non-elastic bands, commonly called occlusion training bands. These are dangerous, can cause an increase in blood pressure and increase your risk of a blood clot.

One of the ways you can confirm that the bands are tight enough is to measure the circumference of your limb before and after the exercise. You should notice an increase of at least a 1/2 inch to 1 inch after your exercise.

Another is to check your capillary refill time by pressing firmly on the area under your thumb on your palm, then quickly releasing and seeing how long the white blanched area takes to turn pink.

If it takes longer than three seconds, the bands are too tight. If the white spot turns pink immediately the bands probably need to be tighter. You can also check the capillary refill pressure on the tissue below the knee. Ideally it should be about two seconds.

BFR Benefits 

By restricting the venous blood flow, you create a relatively hypoxic environment in the exercising muscle, which in turn triggers a number of physiological benefits, including the production of hormones such as growth hormone and IGF-1, commonly referred to as "the fitness hormones."16 It also increases vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which is fertilizer for growing more blood vessels and improving their lining (endothelium).

High-intensity training such as sprinting or heavy weight training have typically been recommended for increasing muscle size because they activate Type II muscle fibers. Conventional weight training done at low weights will not activate Type II fibers, but BFR also achieves this.

The reason BFR activates Type II fibers is because the Type I fibers become exhausted in the hypoxic conditions created by the restricted blood flow. This allows the Type II fibers to fire and generate high levels of lactate, which are responsible for much of the metabolic magic.

During BFR training the Type I fibers become fatigued during the first set, thus necessitating the recruitment of Type II fibers as the exercise progresses.17 I'll be posting an in-depth article on BFR training with videos in the near future, but for now, you can find more details in my previous article, "Build Muscle Faster, Safer and Easier With BFR."

I used to recommend the Nitric Oxide Dump but not anymore as BFR is far more effective in providing vital metabolic benefits. It is the new form of Peak Fitness exercise. I can't wait to finally finish my comprehensive training recommendations and videos so you can start this exercise.

Don't Underestimate the Benefits of Walking

Walking is another form of exercise that lends itself to people of all ages, including the elderly. Walking can also be turned into a high-intensity exercise, simply by picking up your speed at regular intervals. It can also be done with BFR training, as I do nearly every day on my beach walks.

Research18 by Dr. Hiroshi Nose and colleagues at the Shinshu University Graduate School of Medicine in Matsumoto, Japan, has demonstrated how a regimented walking program that incorporates gentle strolling and fast walking can benefit the elderly.

Nose's program consisted of five sets of intervals: Three minutes of fast walking, aiming for an exertion level of about 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, followed by three minutes of slow strolling, for a total of 30 minutes, three times a week.

Results showed that, compared to those who walked at a steady pace for the same amount of time, those who did the intervals had significantly better aerobic fitness, leg strength and blood pressure readings after five months. Those who maintained a steady pace throughout their half-hour walk experienced virtually no changes in these parameters.

Determine Your Ideal Workout Frequency

While beginners should not perform weight training more than three times a week on nonconsecutive days, you may find you need more rest days one week than another, or need to increase the number of rest days as you become more advanced.

BFR has an added advantage here, as the minimal weight used means minimal muscle damage, which significantly shortens your recovery. BFR can be done as little as twice a week, to as frequently as three times a day, depending on your training goals.

You can determine your ideal workout frequency by monitoring your body and symptoms. As a general rule, you're aiming for a schedule where you don't feel tired after 24 hours, you feel invigorated and healthy, and your next workout is not more difficult than your last. Telltale signs you haven't recovered well are similar to those of overtraining syndrome, which include:

  • Reduced performance — You'll find you reach muscle fatigue faster for each set of exercises.
  • Fatigue on the days after your workout — You may experience flu-like symptoms including overall muscle ache, exhaustion, headache and a general feeling of malaise that may extend for days after your workout.
  • Fatigue will continue between workouts and you'll feel worse more days than you feel good.

When you are properly recovered, you'll experience:

  • Slight improvements with each session — You may not notice these each time but the session will not feel harder than the last one, and you'll be able to do more repetitions over time.
  • You may feel slightly tired the next day but will likely be invigorated with a sense of well-being.

No, You're Not Too Old to Get Moving

If you question your ability to start up a fitness routine because of your age, take a look at my previous article, "Shot of Inspiration — Superstar Seniors Exercise Well Into Their Golden Years."

There, you'll find stories about a powerlifter who took up weightlifting at the age of 73; a WWII veteran who ran across the U.S. at age 93; a pensioner who took up karate at 72 and earned her black belt at 78, and an 86-year-old ironman triathlete who started running at age 47 — all proof positive that it's never too late to improve your fitness.

If you're unsure where to start, look through my Fitness Plan. In it, you'll find all sorts of ideas, along with goal-setting resources and information about how to devise a well-rounded exercise plan.

If you're severely obese, frail, infirm or have significant balance issues, you'll want to start where you are and work your way up, of course. For guidance, see my previous articles, "Basic Exercise Guide for Older Seniors and the Infirm" and "Easy Strength Training Moves for Seniors."