Age catches up with all of us—but that doesn’t mean we can’t give it a run for its money.
As early as our 30s, we start to lose muscle mass and muscle function, and after we reach middle age that rate of decline often only increases. Some research suggests older adults can lose up to 3 percent of their muscle strength each year. As a result, with time we can begin to struggle with certain tasks.
In other words, loss of muscle–known in medical terms as sarcopenia–can be a problem that affects quality of life.
But the good news is that there is something you can do about it: lift weights.
“The importance of lifting weights isn’t much different for older people versus younger people,” explains Nick McClary, a physical therapist at Tidelands Health Rehabilitation Services at Murrells Inlet. “Lifting weights can really improve your overall strength and activity levels as you age.”
Even if you’re never picked up a barbell in your life, you can get started on a lifting program that can help ensure you continue to enjoy a happy, productive and active life as you age.
Find the right mix
Whether you’re a star athlete in your 20s or a grandfather in your 70s chasing grandkids, it’s important to achieve the right blend of cardio and strength work in your exercise routine, McClary says.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity and at least two days of resistance or strength training per week. McClary goes even further, however, suggesting that three or four days per week of strength training might be better.
The reason, McClary says, is that we get the most benefit out of a lifting program if we pursue “progressive overload,” which is the process by which muscles are challenged to grow by ever more strenuous exercise.
“It’s difficult to continue adding weight, sets or reps if you’re only resistance training twice a week,” he says. “Without progression, the muscles will not continue to grow and get stronger.”
Pros and cons
Those who lift weights correctly can build muscle mass, tone up, get stronger and enjoy greater range of motion. And again, for older adults, a good strength program can maintain muscle strength at a time when the body would otherwise naturally be growing weaker.
Of course, as with any exercise, strength training comes along with some risk of injury. To help avoid problems, McClary recommends maintaining proper form and, just as importantly, never putting more weight on the bar than you can handle.
If you’ve never lifted weights before, a personal trainer or exercise physiologist, such as those at Tidelands HealthPoint Center for Health and Fitness, can help get you started.
“If you look at the research on injury risk, you’re not at any greater risk while lifting weights than you are with other activities,” he says. “In fact, a lot of the research will point out the recreational running and recreational sports carry much higher injury risks than lifting weights.”
Make the most of it
To maximize your strength training efforts, it’s essential that you keep track of each of your workouts and remain aware of your progress. You need to know how much weight you are lifting and for how many reps, then use that information to craft your next workout.
Again, if you want to build muscles, you need to keep challenging them, and you can only challenge them by continuing to up your total volume—a calculation where you multiply the number of repetitions completed by the weight lifted and the number of sets completed.
Be assured, McClary says: With the right diet and technique, even older adults can build strength and muscle.
He does add one caveat, however: no two people will react the same way to a weight training program. So don’t get discouraged if you see somebody else getting “better” results than you. Just keep your head down, put the work in, hit the gym regularly and eat right. It can and will pay off.
“Many older adults are strength training these days,” McClary says. “And I think that’s simply because they see the benefit of maintaining their strength as they age. We all want a great quality of life, and strength training can help deliver precisely that.”