I’ve recently had several people ask me what the benefits of strength training are as we age. It seems that this question continues to get asked a lot and I decided it might be most helpful to provide and share one of the many reasons.
The tendency towards inactivity naturally increases as we age; leading to many age-related degenerative issues and diseases. Just think of your grandparent’s frailty, stooped posture, unsteady and uncoordinated movements, loss of strength and sagging skin due to muscle loss. What I’d like to stress here is; it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the most prominent benefits to strength training as we age is maintenance of muscle tissue.
Why is this important?
As we age our bodies go through Sarcopenia which is a loss in strength from a reduced muscle mass and a loss in mobility from the reduced functional capacity of the muscle. These muscle changes happen because of issues between motor unit restructuring, protein deficiency and changes in hormone concentrations. This motor unit restructuring is the most important to maintain, as it causes the death of and/or decreased production of specialized motor neurons that send electrical impulses to the muscle fibers. This leads to nearby motor neurons to take over for survival, often with less precision and coordination in motor unit firing. This process usually begins at middle age (around 40) at a rate approximately half a pound muscle loss per year. Around the age of 50, this rate can double and it accelerates further towards the age of 70. If an individual is inactive, these numbers can exaggerate further.
Strength or resistance training can prolong, even slow this process. In one study by Roth, Ferrel & Hurley 2000, (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10936901) strength training was discovered to have a positive effect on the body’s neuromuscular system, protein synthesis and hormone concentrations by increasing production rates in response to strength training stimuli. Strength training (or better known as lifting weights) stresses the muscle by requiring the neurons to fire between the brain and muscle fibers in a more synchronistical way. The more motor neurons fire, the more muscle fiber recruitment involved which leads to a more coordinated, faster muscle contraction and greater muscle force production. Muscle mass helps to maintain protein synthesis rates which is needed for muscle tissue growth and regeneration. This may explain why individuals with a higher level of lean muscle mass may heal faster upon injuries (another benefit!).
Several human hormones responsible for muscle protein metabolism and closely related with protein synthesis usually decline due to age and atrophy. These hormones levels can be maintained however, through a continual strength-training program and were shown to improve when inactive individuals incorporated lifting weights into their exercise program. The overall take home message here is, if you don’t use it you will lose it!
The human skeletal muscle is a truly amazing, adaptable organ. Muscle will grow when repeatedly stressed during an intensive and progressive training program. No matter what the current motor neuron loss, muscle will hypertrophy using the neurons it current has. No matter one’s age or fitness level, studies have shown that muscle strength and mass can be regained. It is always advisable to seek the professional advice of a personal fitness trainer, especially if new strength training or experienced in age. Correct form and lifting mechanics, intensity, frequency and current fitness level all need to be factored in a strength-training program. The program also needs to progress at the appropriate overload rate to avoid injuries and gain improvements.
To maintain lean muscle, strength, coordination and mobility, it is important to continue to strength train or begin it now! You will keep your body functioning optimally well into your ‘experienced’ years, prevent degenerative issues and create a healthier version of you! For further information on personal fitness training at SAC, please contact Kendra Kainz.