As we age we lose muscle. There is even a fancy scientific word for it: sarcopenia. It means the loss of muscle mass due to aging.
Between the ages of 30 and 80, both men and women can lose anywhere from 30%-50% of their muscle strength. Decreasing strength can make it harder to go out and remain active, which over time becomes a slippery slope to inactivity: the primary cause of muscle loss.
This is not something to shrug off. Losing muscle mass comes with consequences. However, to avoid negative consequences, you don’t need to bulk up like a bodybuilder or slim down like a bikini model. With the right mindset, you can set goals to improve your body composition that’ll keep you healthy and moving no matter your age.
That mindset starts with a better understanding of two major categories of fitness - physical fitness and functional fitness.
If you’re from Generation X or older, you’re old enough to remember the now retired Presidential Physical Fitness Test (Oh, hadn’t you heard? Yes, it’s gone. It’s been replaced with the Presidential Youth Fitness Program.)
The yearly test held in grade schools across the nation involved a timed mile run, pull ups (or the girls-only option to alternatively perform a flexed-arm hang), and a battery of other strength, agility and flexibility challenges. Its purpose was to promote a certain standard of physical fitness.
However, once mandatory fitness tests end after high school and school-related team sports give way to sedentary office jobs, physical fitness starts to take a backseat to other, more immediate priorities. If that sounds like you, that’s OK. There’s another goal you can work toward that has a major impact on your health, and it’s something you can work towards regardless if you’re 18 or 80: functional fitness.
If you’ve never heard the term before, that’s not surprising. In fact, unless you’re over the age of sixty or seventy, it’s probably not even on your radar. Functional fitness is about being able to perform everyday activities safely, like getting in and out of a seated position or grabbing the spices off the top shelf in your kitchen.
Sounds simple, right? Maybe it is for you now, but consider this:.
It turns out that 19% of women and 10% of men enrolled in Medicare aged 65 years or older are unable to kneel. So what? You may have never thought of kneeling in this way before, but that’s the type of motion that is useful when you need to pick up something that you’ve dropped on the floor. So if you can’t kneel and you drop something, you’re in trouble.
It’s not just kneeling, either. Below is a graph showing, by percentages, other physical movements that Medicare enrollees aged 65 years or older cannot perform, such as walk two to three blocks and lifting 10 pounds.
One way to make performing daily activities as we age easier is by strength training. Unfortunately, the mere mention of the phrase strength training to non-athletes commonly conjures up uncomfortable images of a dark, pungent room filled with the sounds of clanking barbells and loud grunts coming from sweaty men with barrel-sized chests and arms that they fondly refer to as ‘guns’.
Stereotypes aside, convincing men and women at any age to engage in some form of resistance training or active lifestyle can be a challenge. But for older adults seeking motivation to become healthier and more mobile, researchers have discovered that successfully starting and maintaining new exercise behaviors are more likely to occur when we perceive our health to be at risk. And make no mistake, as you age, if you don’t stay physically active your health and mobility will decline.
Functional fitness, the ability to move about comfortably in our daily lives, not only benefits you in terms of activity, but also contributes to improved body composition. In fact, working to reach functional fitness and improving body composition go hand in hand.
The aging process has been shown to reduce our metabolic rate, which often leads to an increase in body fat. That’s largely due to the fact that people tend to lose Lean Body Mass as they age due to inactivity. Lean Body Mass contributes to your overall Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), the number of calories your body needs to power its essential functions.
By engaging in strength training, older adults - as well as anyone at any age -- can regain some of the muscle loss due to aging/inactivity, which in turn can lead to an increase in their lean body mass. That increase Lean Body Mass increases BMR, which helps stave off fat gain if diet remains consistent.
Why do we care about improving our body composition as we age? For the unsexy reasons, like helping prevent bone loss, heart disease, obesity, and cancer, to name a few. Additionally, as we age and lose muscle mass, balance and agility often go with it. Our tendency to fall increases, and the injuries sustained from those falls can be detrimental to our overall health, not to mention expensive.
If we reflect back on the cliché scene of the strength training culture described earlier: the gym grunters, the deafening droppers-of-barbells onto the floor or the persons who seemingly appear out of nowhere and need to get their last set in before you can start using the equipment, we don’t typically envision women filling those roles.
Fortunately for women, joining the ranks of the bench press/deadlift brigade isn’t necessary for results to come. In an all-women study involving 20 women over the age of 50, the subjects spent 12 weeks using bands as the chosen form of resistance training (as opposed to dumbbells or seated machines) and saw increases in strength. Also worth noting, none of the participants reported injuries. That’s a nice bonus.
Frankly, the numbers are pretty bleak. A shockingly low 6% of adults in the United States engage in resistance training at least twice a week, the minimum criteria set forth in the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2008 Guidelines) and by the American College of Sports Medicine.
No doubt, misconception about who strength training is for plays a large role. Part of the beauty of the benefits received from lifting weights, whether they be dumbbells, bodyweight exercises, bands, machines or otherwise, is you don’t have to be a trained athlete to reap the benefits.
You don’t have to be young. You don’t have to be a beacon of health. You don’t have to be a member of a gym. It seems odd to have to put a finer point on it, but it’s important to know that both men and women can benefit from strength training.
For older adults interested in increasing their energy levels and decreasing their body fat, look to resistance training. A study published in Sports Medicine on the effects of strength training on the elderly stated,
Resistance training in older adults also increases power, reduces the difficulty of performing daily tasks, enhances energy expenditure and body composition, and promotes participation in spontaneous physical activity.
In light of this information, take comfort in knowing that it’s never too late in life to start lifting.
Strength comes in many forms. Strength comes from wisdom and experience, both gained with age. And today, we know that gains in strength can also come from lifting. Let’s consciously decide to look forward to our later years and promise ourselves that taking out the trash or carrying all our groceries in one load to the kitchen won’t be tasks to celebrate, but simply the same, old, tired errands we think of as part of the joy of living a healthy, active lifestyle.
As one of my fellow coaches is fond of saying, “Working out is hard, but living life without muscles is harder.” Let’s choose to embrace aging, firmly and with both hands, preferably clasp around a seated resistance or cable machine, a set of dumbbells or bands, or whatever you decide is your favorite strength training method.
Hilary Fosdal is an ACE certified personal trainer. She also does a lot of heavy lifting at redphonestudio.com, a web design and digital marketing company that helps health practitioners improve their professional identity.