Many of the health-related impacts of aging are not readily apparent to us when we look in the mirror. Though we can tell our hair is graying and/or thinning, or that we have wrinkles and discoloration of our skin that wasn’t there when we were young, these are primarily cosmetic changes in our appearance.
Most of the significant age-related changes in our bodies happen internally, and without blood tests and other diagnostic measures we don’t really have a good way ourselves to know how much internal change is taking place.
But one type of age-related change we can definitely see and feel on a daily basis is our sense of strength. Whether it shows up in a reduced ability to lift heavy objects, difficulty maintaining balance, persistent fatigue or simply how our muscles look to us as we pose all-Jack-LaLanne-like in the bathroom mirror, we can definitely tell age is creeping up on us. This age-related loss of muscle strength, mass and functional ability is called sarcopenia by medical professionals and is considered a significant health issue for middle-aged and older adults.
Resistance Training Can Help
But did you know that engaging in a regular resistance training exercise program (weight lifting) can reverse the effects of aging on muscles, even among middle-aged and older adults? And that the gains in muscle size, strength and functional abilities can persist for extended periods with just one workout per week? Even more amazing, it is possible for those in their 60-80s to achieve muscle mass and strength improvements similar to 20-30 year-olds from a regular resistance training program. Finally, the absolute muscle mass and strength levels achieved by 60-80 year-olds from a regular resistance training program can deliver conditioning benefits similar to 20-30 year-olds who don’t work out regularly.
Sound impossible? We offer you then the results of a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official scientific journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. In this study, researchers showed that older adults (average age of 64) who participated in a 35-minute session resistance training program, 3-days per week for 16 weeks achieved similar improvements in muscle strength and muscle mass as younger adults who participated in the study (average age of 27).
Specifically, the older adults in the study increased their knee extension muscle strength by 51% over the 16 weeks while the younger group improved by 44% — knee extension strength was chosen by the research team to evaluate muscle strength improvements for both groups. Further, while the younger group could lift 60% more absolute weight than the older group at the same snapshots in time (pre-training program and post-training program), the older group post-training was able to lift 90% as much weight as the pre-training younger group.
Further still, with a less-intensive follow-on 32-week resistance training program consisting of one-day per week workouts (versus the three days per week in the initial 16-week program), the older adults were able to further boost muscle strength. However, muscle mass gains in the older adults diminished at the lower intensity workout level (one day/week) by the end of the 32-week follow-on program but were still higher than the baseline muscle mass measurements taken prior to the onset of the initial 16-week training program.
This latter finding was the only real difference the researchers found between how the older and younger adults’ muscles adapted to lower intensity follow-on resistance training after an initial higher intensity program. Younger adults and older adults both continued to improve muscle strength at the one day/week level in the follow-on program, but only younger adults also maintained increased muscle mass at the one day/week level. So in effect, older adults retained the strength gained through the initial program, but the size of their muscles diminished at one day/week training versus three days/week training.
A Program to Get You Started
For those interested, the initial 16-week resistance training program included:
- 3 training sessions per week
- 5-minute warm-up session on a stationary cycle or treadmill
- Resistance training consisted of three exercises: knee extensions, leg press and squats
- Each exercise was performed for three sets of 8-12 repetitions
- In between each set, subjects rested for 90 seconds
- Initial weight lifted for each exercise in the training program was 75% of each subject’s one-repetition maximum. Prior to beginning the exercise program the researcher’s established each subject’s one-repetition maximum by having the subjects perform the above exercises for one “full range of motion” rep at progressively increased weight loads. When the subjects reached a weight load that they could not lift one “full range of motion” rep after two attempts, the researchers established that weight load as the one-rep maximum for the specific exercise tested.
- Once a subject achieved 12 reps in two of the three training sets for each exercise, the researchers increased the weight load by roughly five pounds for the next session.
After the initial 16-week program, a third of the study subjects participated in a follow-on 32-week program that was the same as above with the exception of performing the exercises one day/week instead of three days/week — another third did no resistance training for the ensuing 32 weeks, and the final third trained one day/week but performed only one set per session versus three sets. In comparing the results of the varying follow-on approaches in older adults, the researchers concluded the one day/week, three sets per session approach evidenced the best retention of muscle strength and mass.
Please keep in mind that the researchers chose these specific exercises for the research study to keep things simple and because upper leg muscles are easy to detect changes in strength and mass compared to other muscles in the body. A resistance training program based on the same combination of reps/sets/weight load determination mechanisms that includes other leg, upper body and arm exercises can deliver similar benefits for the muscle groups trained.
In other words, don’t feel limited to the three exercises described in the study. There is significant benefit to resistance training for all major muscle groups, and one can utilize the same protocol described above to achieve improvements in muscle strength and mass at any age.
Additional Health Benefits of Resistance Training
And as the study’s authors noted, the health benefits of resistance training go well beyond muscle strength and mass. Resistance training in young and older adults has also been shown in previous research to balance blood sugar, improve aerobic capacity, strengthen bones and joints and bolster fat metabolism.
So if you desire to push back on the effects of aging and want to see and feel the results along the way, consider beginning a resistance training program. Following a training protocol similar to the one described in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study can help boost muscle strength and muscle mass at any age and may just help your body turn back the hands of time.
If you do decide to pursue a resistance training program and are unfamiliar or unclear about what exercises are appropriate for your particular circumstance/health status, we recommend you visit your local fitness club or community center and ask to speak with a certified fitness instructor. These instructors can walk you through the specific exercises and demonstrate the proper technique to use when lifting weights. They can also help devise a personalized set of exercises to include in your program. Most fitness instructors/personal trainers will provide an initial consultation free of charge. If you decide you’d like the personal attention/supervision/guidance of a fitness instructor for a follow-on sessions, most fitness instructors charge by the hour and you can start or stop using their services when you desire.
For those who don’t want to spend the time/money on a personal trainer, there are also many books and DVDs available for purchase in retail outlets and on the Internet that can provide pictorial demonstrations of specific exercises and provide recommended resistance training programs for different beginning fitness levels.
 Bickel CS, et al. Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011 July; 43(7);1177-1187.