Editor’s Note: This post was updated on November 15, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on August 31st, 2016.
As we age we lose muscle mass. 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 a challenge to lead an active lifestyle or find the energy level to complete the daily errands, much less exercise. Inactivity can make muscle loss even worse.
Despite the consequences of muscle mass loss, older individuals are still reluctant to try to improve their fitness level through resistance workouts. There’s false belief that after years of inactivity, they are too old to pick up a dumbbell. But with the right mindset, anyone can set goals to improve your body composition that’ll improve your energy level and keep you active long into your golden years.
That change in mindset starts with gaining a better understanding of two major categories of fitness – physical fitness and functional fitness.
Physical Fitness vs Functional Fitness
If you’re from Generation X or older, you’re old enough to remember the now retired Presidential Physical Fitness Test (Now renamed the Presidential Youth Fitness Program.)
The yearly test held in grade schools across the nation involved a timed mile run, pull-ups, and other tests of strength, agility, endurance, and flexibility. Its goal was to improve the standard of physical fitness.
When you are younger, it’s easier to find a balance between obligations and time for yourself. But as you get older, family and work obligations grow and physical fitness starts to take a backseat to other priorities. If that sounds like you, that’s OK. Sure, achieving that perfect summer body may not be a priority anymore, but there is still an important fitness goal you work on for the rest of your life: 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 as a challenge, 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 don’t have the balance to kneel and pick something up, 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 or lift 10 pounds.
Use it or lose it?
One way to maintain our ability to perform daily activities as we age is by strength training. But convincing men and women at any age to adopt an active lifestyle much less engage in some form of resistance training can be a challenge. But for older adults seeking motivation to become healthier and more mobile, make no mistake, as you age, if you don’t stay physically active through regular exercise your balance, energy level, and mobility will decline.
Strength, balance and improved body composition
Functional fitness, the ability to move about comfortably in our daily lives, not only benefits you in terms of activity but also contributes to an improved body composition. In fact, working to reach a certain level of 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), also known as your metabolism, which is the number of calories your body needs to support its essential functions.
By engaging in strength training or resistance exercises, 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 important reasons like preventing bone loss, heart disease, obesity, and age-related falling, to name a few. As we age and lose lean 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 and quality of life.
Fracture’s caused by falling is higher in elderly women than men. Despite the fact that women can greatly benefit from resistance training, the number of women who lift regularly is still low. 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 important information for those who are worried that exercise may be too strenuous for their body.
It’s never too late to start lifting
Frankly, the numbers are pretty bleak. A shockingly low 6% of adults in the United States engage in resistance training or any type of weight 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, misconceptions that weight training exercises have an age limit 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 that you don’t have to be young to reap the benefits.
You don’t have to train at a high-intensity. You don’t have to be a beacon of health. It seems odd that we still have to clarify this, but it’s important to reiterate that both men and women can benefit from lifting weights.
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.
Enjoying Your Golden Years
Strength comes in many forms. And it comes from wisdom and experience, both gained over a lifetime. And today, we know that benefits from resistance exercises go beyond just physical appearance. Let’s consciously decide to look forward to our golden years and promise ourselves something as simple as supporting our own body weight won’t be a significant challenge. As a popular saying goes, “Working out is hard, but living life without muscles is harder.” Don’t believe that it’s too late after years of inactivity. Anyone can get on the cable machine and start lifting to improve their life because strength training has no age limit.
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.