You know the saying “use it or lose it”? For me, the truth of this saying got redefined at around age 40. I thought I was using it and maintaining my fitness, but my physio let me know otherwise. Muscle atrophy/ sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) starts at around age 30-35. Over the age of 40, there is a noticeable transition, and with each decade 50, 60, and beyond, muscle atrophy and loss in bone mineral density become more significant.
MUSCLE ATROPHY AND ENDOCRINE SYSTEM
Muscle atrophy/ sarcopenia is thought to be a result of muscle fiber size reduction and the death of muscle fibers, primarily those muscle fibers that go unused. Lost muscle fibers replace themselves with fat or fibrous tissue resulting in a loss of strength and physical ability.
The other thing that declines with age is the endocrine system’s ability to regulate hormone function. And if that isn’t bad enough, in old age, a hormonal imbalance can develop, leading to increased inflammation and reduced protein synthesis.
I can’t say that this info is painting a rosy picture for growing old. However, research does provide clear strategies to minimize the effects of aging. You can stick all sorts of fad products, supplements, or “superfoods” in your body, but nothing has been proven to replace the benefits of building strength. Strength training will improve every aspect of your health from musculoskeletal right down to hormonal and cellular levels.
STRENGTH IS KING
Research shows that you can benefit from a well-designed strength training program at almost any age. However, you must adopt heavy loading in your strength training program if you want to recruit as many motor units as possible. In doing so, you’ll obtain the many positive health benefits of stronger bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscle fibers as well as the improved function of the endocrine system.
The principle of motor unit recruitment and adaptation is one of the essential principles of physical exercise and general health, for more refer to muscle fiber types. However, over 60, avoiding going too heavy due to the higher risk of injury may be wise. Reps may also be best not taken to failure to reduce the risks of high blood pressure and elevated heart rate.
Exercises that involve jumping with a high enough ground impact force have been shown to increase bone density of the lower body. Surprisingly, people that engage in only aerobic exercise such as running may have lower bone density than those that don’t exercise at all (1).
POWER, BALANCE, AND MOBILITY
Exercises that improve balance and power are great for retaining your physical independence and avoiding injury. It is also worth including exercises beyond just the sagittal plane (moving only in the forward or backward directions).
Common mistakes made when training at any age are:
- Not including high intensities in your strength training.
- Thinking that machines are safer. This mindset can make you more prone to overreach compared to using free weights. Free weights offer more benefits for improving balance by activating stabilizer muscles.
“When are you old? When you stop dreaming of what you can do, you are old” – Lou, 87-year-old triathlete.
1. Low lumbar spine bone mineral density in both male and female endurance runners. Hind K, Truscott JG, Evans JA. Bone. 2006 Oct;39(4):880-5. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16682267