Growing Older, Growing Stronger

Strength training now can spell benefits later in life.

By Greg Breining, Contributing Writer

Around age 40, we begin losing muscle mass. The process is called sarcopenia. In the worst cases, it leaves seniors frail and unable to care for themselves. They may otherwise be healthy.

However, seniors may be able to prolong their independence if they can maintain their strength, says researcher Zsolt Murlasits. Murlasits is assistant professor of health sport sciences at the University of Memphis.

Resistance training is one of the surest ways to maintain strength. Studies have shown that it also offers cardiovascular benefits similar to aerobic activity. It may even help stave off cognitive degeneration.

Weight training grows muscle no matter what our age, says researcher Stuart Phillips. Phillips is professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario. Greater strength can help with climbing stairs and rising from a chair.

These movements are simple things, he says.

“But we know that when you can’t do them, you’re in big trouble,” he says.

Phillips says data from the McMaster fitness clinic suggests seniors who train with weights use the health care system less.

Just how effective is weight training in stemming muscle loss?

Short-term, heavy resistance training in healthy older men is sufficient to overcome deficits in muscle mass and strength. That’s according to a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning

The benefits don’t stop there.

Phillips says there are several metabolic benefits as well. Trained muscles better process blood glucose. “So you reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes,” he says.

Along with calorie control and aerobic activity, more muscle helps burn calories.

“A skeletal muscle is like our furnace,” Phillips says.

There’s also evidence that weight training, like other weight-bearing exercise, boosts bone density. That’s provided you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D.

Weight training can even improve mental function.

A year of resistance training once or twice a week benefited some areas of executive cognitive function of women aged 65 to 75. Weight training did more for cognition than exercise for balance and tone. These findings were in a 2010 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Always check with your doctor first before starting an exercise program.