Exercise is clearly a foundational aspect of optimal health, and the good news is that it's never too late to start, even if you've never exercised before and/or are older. Studies have repeatedly shown even the elderly can make significant headway when taking up a fitness routine, and recent research adds further support to this notion.
Untrained Seniors Have Unchanged Capacity for Muscle Building
The study,1 undertaken by researchers at the University of Birmingham in England, pitted lifelong athletes in their 70s and 80s against men of the same age who had never participated in a structured fitness program.
The goal was to find out whether untrained individuals have the capacity to build muscle to the extent that lifelong exercisers can. As noted in Neuroscience News,2"The researchers … expected that the master athletes would have an increased ability to build muscle due to their superior levels of fitness over a prolonged period of time."
The answer is encouraging, to say the least, as muscle biopsies taken before and after exercise revealed both groups had the identical capacity to build muscle in response to exercise. In a press release, lead researcher Dr. Leigh Breen said:3
"Our study clearly shows that it doesn't matter if you haven't been a regular exerciser throughout your life, you can still derive benefit from exercise whenever you start.
Obviously, a long-term commitment to good health and exercise is the best approach to achieve whole-body health, but even starting later on in life will help delay age-related frailty and muscle weakness. Current public health advice on strength training for older people is often quite vague.
What's needed is more specific guidance on how individuals can improve their muscle strength, even outside of a gym-setting through activities undertaken in their homes — activities such as gardening, walking up and down stairs, or lifting up a shopping bag can all help if undertaken as part of a regular exercise regime."
Older Adults Have Much to Gain From Strength Training
My mother, several years before her death, was a testament to the fact that it's never too late to benefit from a fitness program. She began strength training at the age of 74. Three years later, she'd gained significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity. In the video above, which was taped in 2011, she demonstrates her strength training routine.
It's important to realize that without resistance training, your muscles will atrophy and lose mass. Age-related loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia, and if you don't do anything to stop it you can expect to lose about 15% of your muscle mass between your 30s and your 80s.4 Other benefits of resistance training include:
• Improved walking ability — After 12 weeks of weight training, seniors aged 65 and over improved leg strength and endurance, and were able to walk 38% farther without resting.5
• Improved ability to perform daily tasks — After 16 weeks of "total body" weight training, women aged 60 to 77 years substantially increased their strength, improved their walking velocity and their ability to carry out daily tasks, such as rising from a chair and carrying groceries.6
• Relief from joint pain — Weight training strengthens the muscles, tendons and ligaments around your joints, which takes stress off the joint and helps ease pain. It can also help increase your range of motion.7
• Improved blood sugar control — Weight training helps to control blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes.8 It can also reduce your Type 2 diabetes risk.
In one study,9 strength training for at least 150 minutes a week lowered diabetes risk by 34% compared to being sedentary. Doing a combination of weight training and aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, tennis or rowing) lowered the risk by 59%.
• Improved brain health and slowed brain aging — Resistance training also increases your body's production of growth factors, which are responsible for cellular growth, proliferation, and differentiation.
Some of these growth factors also promote the growth, differentiation and survival of neurons, which helps explain why working your muscles also benefits your brain and helps prevent dementia.