Much has been written about the benefits of weight training programs and how they assist in the creation of lean muscle tissue and the subsequent positive effects on the body's metabolic rate, function and structure. Health and Fitness magazine covers frequently showcase well-muscled individuals who are a testament to the benefits of a well- structured resistance training program. They also tend to show young adults which may often leave older adults with the the feeling that perhaps weight training is for a certain age category only. However, as a nation we are now living longer and where once those of retirement age may have been advised that they should slow down, do less, relax and ease into old age gracefully, there has been a shift in attitude and behaviour. Being active in the latter stages of life is becoming the norm for healthy older adults and research is showing that the best way to maximise this resurgence in activity and keep functionally fit is to ( to use older terminology) pump iron or, to use its more contemporary epithet, resistance training.
Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults
The UK Chief Medical Officers have produced activity guidelines on the various stages of human life and the amount and frequency that should be aimed for to maintain health and fitness and prevent disease. The physical activity guidelines for 'Older Adults" (65+ years) is that they should aim to be active daily and over a week the activity should add up to at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate intensity activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more (or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity spread across the week). As part of this generalised advice there is a vague reference to focus on improving muscle strength on at least two days per week. Obviously, to prescribe specific resistance training programs to a diverse population would not only be practically impossible but also somewhat irresponsible, hence the more generic advice. However, perhaps more emphasis would be put on weight lifting training when one notices that between the ages of 50 and 70 years people lose 30% of their muscle strength and the high occurrence of fractures and falls that occur as one ages, often as a result weakened bones and musculature. Maintaining muscle strength in old age would not only arrest some of these changes but would also ensure the maintenance of mobility and improve older adults independence and give them the confidence to manage every day tasks independently. When one looks at the research into weight lifting training and the effects on older adults then it is clear that a weight training program should play a large part of an older individual's exercise regime.
Recent Research into Weight Training for Older Adults
Scientists at the University of Potsdam* have recently published their findings on the effects of weight training on older adults and given weight ( no pun intended) to the belief that weight training is the best way to preserve muscle mass and hence improve function and the quality of an individual's life. This research enables personal trainers, fitness coaches and other health and fitness professionals who have for some time now been encouraging their clients to focus on resistance training programs, to devise bespoke weight training programs that actually have enormous impacts on their clients' lives rather than broad based training programs that often times are ineffectual. The authors of the latest research set out to find the extent to which muscle atrophy can be averted into older age by weight lifting training and which intensities are useful and possible in persons over 60 yrs. As expected, they found that regular resistance training increased muscle strength, reduced muscular atrophy, and had other positive adaptations on tendons and bones. These structural outcomes had a preventative effect in terms of avoiding falls and injuries. The greater the intensity of the weight training, the greater the effect; an intensity of 60-85% of one-repetition-maximum (1RM) increased muscle mass, whereas in order to increase rapidly available muscle force higher intensities (>85%) are required. The optimum amount of (resistance) exercise for healthy elderly individuals was found to be 3 to 4 times per week.
As we continue to live longer and as the retirement age goes up, it will become increasingly important to maintain the ability to work for longer as will the need for independence in everyday life and leisure activities. A well-structured resistance program will ensure that the muscles are kept functionally strong, reduce natural muscular atrophy, decrease the incidence of falls and injury and consequently result in a much better quality of life, giving older adults greater options and choice in the activities they do in their senior years. The growing awareness in health and fitness circles of the importance of resistance training should ensure that older adults take part in the weight lifting training revolution and the nation as a whole will benefit enormously because of it.
* Mayer, F; Scharhag-Rosenberger, F; Carlsohn, A; Cassel, M; Muller, S; Scharhag, J; The Intensity and Effects of Strength Training in the Elderly. Deutsches Aerzzteblatt International, 2011; 108 (21): 359-64 DOI