Ageing is typically associated with a number of not very nice things in terms of our health and fitness – in particular, a loss of strength and an increase in frailty, as well as an increased risk of chronic health conditions, such as osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease to name a few. However, these are not inevitable consequences of ageing. Being physically active, and taking part in strength training (i.e. exercising against resistance), can help to minimise all of these issues and more. This article will explain why I believe lifting weights is one of the most health-promoting activities you can engage in as you get older, and how you can make lifting part of your life.
Sarcopenia is the term for age-related muscle loss. From age 30 the average person loses 0.5% of their muscle mass each year, with women typically losing more than men as they have less muscle to begin with. This figure increases with age. We also lose bone density as we get older, and this accelerates in women after the menopause. This means our bones become fragile and more susceptible to fractures.
This natural decline in muscle and strength, coupled with weakened bones, means older adults have a heightened risk of falls, and falls are more likely to result in fractures compared with younger people. One third (3 million) of adults aged 65 and above in the UK experience falls, and 75,000 of these cause hip fractures. Only half of patients return home one month after a hip fracture, and one in 12 of these patients die every year, contributing to over 6,000 deaths from falls and hip fractures each year. My own granny was one of these unfortunate statistics, and despite smoking heavily for her the majority of her life, it was a hip fracture from a fall that caused her to die. In a similar vein, my boyfriend’s mother recently fractured her arm after a seemingly minor fall, and doctors told her this happened because her bones are brittle. She is now on medication for osteoporosis, but unfortunately this condition cannot be cured - only controlled - and the key is prevention early in life.
So how can we prevent our bones and muscles from becoming weak and prone to breaking? Well the good news is, strength training is the most effective way to simultaneously strengthen muscles and stimulate bone growth. One study found that older adults who engaged in a 20 week strength training programme gained 1.1kg of muscle mass. Research also shows that 80 year olds who take part in regular strength training have the equivalent muscle power to untrained 60 year olds, suggesting that exercise can help to reduce some of the detrimental physiological effects of aging by an astonishing 20 years.
It is estimated that 18% of women and 10% of men aged over 65 cannot lift more than 4.5kg. The photo on the right shows me lifting 4.5kg of groceries, to put this into perspective. That’s a lot of older adults in our communities who are frail and lacking very basic levels of mobility, which therefore impacts on their independence and ability to carry out daily tasks.
Strength training can help with this. When you lift weights your muscles move under force in different directions, which teaches your body to get stronger. If you have strong legs, back, arms and core, you will be better able to carry your shopping bags home, reach for things in your cupboards, get up and down from the sofa and play with your grandchildren, all without getting injured. This will help you to maintain your independence for as long as possible, which will no-doubt improve your quality of life.
One of the most wonderful benefits of exercise of all types, including strength training and cardiovascular exercise, is its ability to prevent and control many chronic diseases, including cancer, coronary heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and dementia. Since 58% of adults over the age of 60 have at least one chronic condition, and the likelihood of living with more than one condition increases with age, it is hugely important for older adults to take part in regular exercise in order to minimise the effects of whatever health condition(s) they may be struggling with. The majority of chronic health conditions today are caused by lifestyle factors - namely diet, activity and tobacco use. However, the good news is that by making positive lifestyle changes such as incorporating physical activity into our routines, we can have a significant impact on disease outcomes, including helping to manage symptoms and preventing deterioration of conditions.
Mental health issues must also be taken into account when we consider chronic conditions affecting older adults. A third of people using specialist mental health services are older adults, and depression is the most common mental health issue amongst over 65’s. However, research shows that strength training can be extremely beneficial for mental health – it can help to reduce anxiety and depression, and increase self-esteem. Furthermore, strength training can help to prevent cognitive decline, and in particular can help with memory, attention and decision-making.
I must mention a final benefit of lifting weights which I observe every Tuesday and Thursday morning when I teach my Over 50’s class at The Gym Southfields. This is the social benefit. Members of my class come for a good workout, of course, but they also come to connect. Often your social circle becomes smaller when you get older; family and friends may move away and you may no longer be working, so you lose out on the social interaction that comes with employment. This is why it is crucial to seek out people with similar interests to you. A gym class in the perfect opportunity for this. I see the ladies from my class’s faces light up when they greet their gym friends, and I often can’t get them to stop chatting before class starts! Some of them have even recently started going for coffee together afterwards, which just shows the power of group exercise for connecting people.
The NHS recommends that all adults take part in at least two sessions of strength training per week. However, research suggests that only about 10% of over 65’s currently meet this criteria, which is less than the 20% of older adults meeting the recommended 150 minutes of light to moderate aerobic exercise per week.
How can you get into strength training, or encourage your mum to do so? Some gyms like mine offer specialised classes for older adults, but if you’re feeling up to it a circuits class could be a good place to start, as that will include some exercises with weights. If you’re new to exercise I’d strongly encourage working with a personal trainer who can design you a programme tailored to your unique needs, and can ensure you are performing exercises with good technique, thus minimising your risk of injury. It is also important to note that strength training does not have to involve lifting weights in the gym - there are many other ways to exercise against resistance that you might prefer. Yoga, pilates, home workouts using bodyweight and even gardening all count. The key is to find something that you enjoy and commit to it twice per week.