Strength Training for Seniors: 6 Great Reasons why You Should Start
After an absence of nearly a year, I’m finally back!
Why the absence? It’s a very long story and part of it is connected to my new blog which I started on blogging for newbies.
But boy, I really miss this health space….
But you know what?
During my absence when I started my new blog I continued my 1-on-1 coaching and guess what? Those clients whom I advised to incorporate regular exercise into their daily routines fared better and made faster progress in terms of their blood lipid profiles and reductions in blood sugar.
Another discovery which I’ve found with those clients who seriously started a regular exercise program was that they didn’t necessarily have to go into ketosis to get their blood sugar levels down. All they had to do was just reduce their carb intake; and an added bonus was they lost fat as well. Later I’ll go into why I prefer to use the term fat loss rather than weight loss.
And there were some clients whom I had to drastically change their diets to one that was about 70% plant based foods because just carb reduction didn’t really work for them. I guess I should have expected that because everybody’s DNA is different: while many folks do benefit by reducig their carbs, there are also people who do better when they switch their diets to mostly plant based foods.
Now please don’t misunderstand that I’m going to promote veganism or vegetarianism because I’m not since I’m not a vegan or vegetarian myself.
Which brings me to what I’m planning to do next – I’m going to reposition my website; it’s not going to be low carb centric any more. I’ll be writing on other whole food diets e.g. the DASH diet, Mediterranean, Ornish and Okinawan diets, more articles on superfoods and maybe even some articles on plant based diets since as I mentioned just now no one diet works for everyone because we’ve got vastly different DNAs…
My main goal when I started this website was to help seniors like myself improve their health by preventing age related chronic illnesses…. and the low carb diet was a low hanging fruit because many seniors have Type 2 diabetes and other related chronic illnesses so it was a natural first step forward.
For some time, I had thought about expanding the scope to different types of whole food diets plus include a whole category on fitness for seniors so I guess this a good time to do so.
So folks, expect changes ahead….
OK, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, it’s now back to the topic of this article – strength training for seniors and the 6 excellent reasons why you should be start.
Why Strength Training?
Ever heard of sarcopenia? Errr… sarco WHAT??
Okay I understand not everyone is a nerd like me who likes to read medical and scientific journals. By the way, that’s where I learned the word sarcopenia which is the medical term for age related muscle loss. And the last time where I mentioned about sarcopenia or age related muscle loss was in this very early article which I wrote on the benefits of walking.
You see, after age 50, seniors like us lose about 3% of our muscle strength on average as studies such as this one show. In fact those of us who are in our 60s and 70s, the loss in muscle mass, function and strength is greater – it can range between 5% and 13%.
Can you imagine losing 5% to 13% of your lean muscle mass and strength EVERY YEAR?
Well if you find it hard to picture that in your mind, just go to any nursing home, you’ll see frail seniors being barely able to walk even with nursing aids helping them; many are on wheelchairs…
You get the picture…. It sure isn’t a pretty sight is it? And if we don’t do something about it NOW that’s how we’re going to end up.
Before you think this is an inevitable part of aging, I want you to watch this video:
For those of us who are baby boomers we’d remember watching the Jack LaLanne Show on the old black and white TVs.
In the video the late Jack LaLanne was 95. He sure didn’t look his age did he? In fact I think he looked like he was in his 80s at most. And mind you, he didn’t die of any age related chronic disease like dementia, heart disease etc. He died from pneumonia because he didn’t want to go see a doctor and he still worked out the day before he passed away. Imagine, if he’d gone to see a doctor, he might still be alive today and probably working out as usual.
I don’t know about you but I certainly want to be as healthy and fit as he was if and when I reach his age.
What was Jack LaLanne’s secret to his excellent health, fitness and longevity?
According to the Wikipedia, LaLanne blamed overly processed foods for many health problems. For most of his life, he advocated primarily a meat and vegetable diet; eating meat three times per day with eggs and fruit in the morning and many servings of vegetables in the afternoon and evening. For six years he was a vegetarian. In his later years, he appeared to advocate a mostly meatless diet which included fish, and took vitamin supplements.
He ate two meals a day and avoided snacks. His breakfast, after working out for two hours, consisted of hard-boiled egg whites, a cup of broth, oatmeal with soy milk, and seasonal fruit. For dinner, he and his wife typically ate raw vegetables, egg whites, and fish. He did not drink coffee.
When exercising, LaLanne worked out repetitively with weights until he experienced “muscle fatigue” in whatever muscle groups he was exercising, or when it became impossible for him to go on with a particular routine. He continued with his two-hour workouts into his 90s, which also included walking.
So with the late Jack LaLanne as our inspiration, let’s find out why we need to do strength training as we get older.
1. Halts Sarcopenia & Increases Muscle Strength
Strength or resistance training is your most effective weapon against age related muscle loss or sarcopenia. In fact, it’s right at the top with balance and cardio or aerobic workouts further down the list.
In a 12-week study conducted by Tufts University in Boston, 57 seniors aged between 65 and 94 were given resistance training on the lower body using the leg press and leg extension machines. They were trained 3 times a week using 3 sets of each exercise until the point of momentary muscular failure. At the end of the study their lower body strength increased particularly in the leg press machine.
So according to the study it appears that “neuromuscular adaptations to power training, rather than skeletal muscle hypertrophy” facilitated the increase in muscle strength. What this means is that although the muscles didn’t appear to increase in size, they increased in strength as they adapted to the heavier weight each time there was progression in the training.
Now how does this increase in muscular strength carryover to everyday living?
If a progressive strength training program involving the entire body is done 2 to 3 times a week on non-consecutive days, it’ll mean much less fatigue in tasks like everyday tasks like gardening, carrying groceries to the car or train, mowing the lawn and washing your car. And oh, if you like traveling like me, putting that small trolley bag into the overhead compartment of a plane cabin will be easy peasy… believe me!
More strength would also mean faster muscle time reaction – this is particularly important because accidents like tripping can happen. With enough muscle strength, your muscle reaction time also correspondingly increases and you’re able to break the fall.
On the other hand, if we don’t do resistance training, our muscles get progressively weaker and when accidents happen we may land up with a bad ankle sprain or worse, have a hip fracture and be immobile. I’ve seen many seniors go downhill once they fall and have a hip or leg fracture. I’m sure you have as well.
This brings us to the next benefit of resistance training.
2. Keeping Osteoporosis at Bay
As we age, our bones deteriorate faster than our bodies can create them and because of that our bone mass and density decreases.
Women are especially susceptible to osteoporosis because once menopause hits estrogen and progesterone levels fall. The hormone estrogen defends against osteoporosis and as soon as the levels begin to go down during menopause the risk of getting osteoporosis increases. And if osteoporosis already exists, it’ll accelerate.
There are tons of studies that testify to the merits of resistance training in increasing bone density and combating osteoporosis. I’ll just mention 2 of them.
In a 32 week study conducted by the University of Porto in Portugal, 47 older adults with an average age of 68 years participated in a 2 day a week resistance training program. At the end of the study all participants showed improvements in dynamic balance (6.4%), muscle strength (11.0%) and lumbar spine bone mineral density (1.7%).
In another 12 month study conducted by the University of Arizona, 266 post-menopausal women were put through a non-consecutive 3 day a week exercise program comprising resistance training, weight bearing aerobic work, balance movements and stretching. The results of the study showed that muscle strength increased by 25% to 75% and bone mineral density increase range was between 0.6% and 2.1%.
3. Increases Metabolism
When we age, our metabolisms slow down as well and as a result, we get fat because our bodies aren’t as efficient as before in burning off the excess calories.
While aerobic or cardio activities like brisk walking or jogging burns more calories during exercise, they don’t increase your metabolism like resistance training.
This is because steady state cardio work isn’t half as effective in maintaining and building lean muscle mass as resistance training. And muscles burn more calories at rest than fat.
In an 8-month study conducted by the Duke University Medical Center, 119 overweight or obese middle aged adults were divided into 3 groups: the 1st group did only resistance training only, the 2nd group aerobic training only and 3rd group a combination of both resistance and aerobic training.
The resistance training only group and the combination of resistance and aerobic training group retained lean muscle mass while losing fat while the aerobic training group lost both lean muscle mass and fat.
I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of resistance training in upping the metabolism and burning fat at rest.
I mentioned in my About Me page that in 2012, I went on a junk food eating spree and as a result gained 4.5 inches on my waistline in just a year. When I decided to get myself back into shape, I totally stopped eating junk food, decreased my carb intake and religiously did resistance training circuits every alternate day. Resistance training circuits build strength and muscle while at the same time gets your heartrate up, just like aerobic exercise; so I was killing 2 birds with one stone.
You may not believe this, but I actually ate MORE food than when I was out of shape because after each workout I would get pretty hungry. But of course it wasn’t the same kinds of foods that I’d put into my mouth e.g. instead of reaching for the tub of ice cream, I’d down a shaker of organic soy milk with whey protein. If I was still hungry I’d eat some fruits and raw nuts.
And within 4 months of working out and revamping my eating habits I lost 5 inches off my waist and at the same time packed on some muscle in the right places because I noticed my t-shirts were getting a little tighter in the upper body region. So I was burning fat and building muscle at the same time! And all this at the age of 54!
4. Burns Fat
This is in direct relation to the above point of resistance training increasing the metabolism.
I’ve never liked the term weight loss.
Let me tell you why.
Weight loss means exactly that – losing body weight and body weight comprises your bones, muscles, body fat, organs and blood.
Fat loss on the other hand means losing body fat while maintaining lean muscle mass.
So let’s say we have 2 guys weighing 200 pounds. One is bodybuilder while the other guy is just a sedentary person. If we go strictly by weight, both are overweight. But does that mean both are fat? No! The bodybuilder probably has a body fat level of maybe only 12% while the other fat sedentary person has a body fat level of over 20%!
Maybe this example is stretching the limit but I’m sure you get my point.
For seniors like us, we NEED to maintain and even build lean muscle mass while keeping our body fat levels as low as we possibly can so we should be aiming for fat loss instead of just weight loss.
There are tons of studies that show that resistance training facilitates fat loss while increasing muscle strength. I’ll just highlight one of them below.
In a 16-week Spanish study of 9 senior men with an average age of 66 years participated in a twice a week resistance training program. At the end of the 16 weeks, their abdominal fat decreased between 10.3% and 11.2% while their leg and arm strength increased by 17.1% and 18.2% respectively. Insulin sensitivity also increased by an outstanding 46.3%.
So, my advice is to simply ignore the weighing scale and use the measuring tape instead. As long as you’re losing inches from your waistline, you’re losing fat.
This brings us to the 4th benefit of doing resistance training – increasing insulin sensitivity because as we pile on the fat, our insulin sensitivity decreases and this increases our risk of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and non-alcoholic fatty liver.
5. Increases Insulin Sensitivity
For seniors who are overweight and/or have prediabetes or type 2 Diabetes, besides following a carb restrictive diet, regular exercise has also shown to improve the insulin sensitivity of such folks.
In an 8-week study by the University of Shahid Beheshti in Tehran, Iran, 32 overweight men were given resistance training 3 times a week on non-consecutive days. At the end of the study, body fat percentage, waist to hip ratio and insulin resistance decreased for all the participants.
That being said, if you’re overweight and/or have type 2 diabetes it’s best to combine BOTH resistance and aerobic training for the best results in improving your insulin resistance as this other study shows.
101 overweight breast cancer survivors were put through a 16-week exercise program that comprised both resistance and aerobic training. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded, “Participation in an exercise intervention was associated with a significant decrease in insulin levels and hip circumference in breast cancer survivors.”
6. Improves Blood Lipid Profiles
Lots of seniors have out of whack lipid profiles which increase the risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease.
Regular resistance training can help to normalize out of whack lipid profiles as this 5-month Finnish study shows.
38 type 2 diabetics were enrolled in this study. They were divided into 2 groups: one group was given resistance training done twice a week on non-consecutive days while the other group was not. At the end of the study, the group that was on resistance training saw their members improving their total cholesterol, LDL, triglycerides and HbA1c numbers more than those in the control group that didn’t do resistance training.
In another study published in the Journal of Gerontology, it showed that the subjects (elderly women between the ages of 70 and 87) who engaged in regular resistance and aerobic training for just 11 weeks had significantly lower total cholesterol and LDL readings that those who did not.
One Last Note
With so many health benefits for spending just about 30 minutes every alternate day or 3 times a week on non-consecutive days, isn’t it time you seriously consider starting a resistance training program?
But before you rush down to your nearest gym and start training with weights, please make sure you get your doctor’s okay first. This is especially so if you’re a senior over 50, have been sedentary for many years, are overweight and/or have chronic health conditions.
In my next few articles I’ll be going into the fundamentals of strength or resistance training and coming up with simple workouts that you can do at home.
See you in my next blogpost!