The process of aging is not something we can escape. The physical and physiological changes associated with advancing age are noticeable from 30 years of age. While aging is an inevitability – the health with which we do so is definitely within our control, and we can also slow the process down...by engaging in regular physical activity.
Before we begin, some facts about physical aging. Muscle strength declines from the age of ~40 years. This is the result of “sarcopenia” (the loss of muscle density and mass). Muscle and tendon elasticity decline, and concomitantly flexibility decreases. Particularly in older women, by the age of ~70 years hip flexibility is compromised by 20-30%, spine mobility by 20-30%, and ankle flexibility by 30-40%. Allied to this, bone density decreases by 0.5% every year after ~40 years, and in women post-menopause this accelerates to 2-3% per year. Fat free mass (or lean mass, in other words that mass that we DO want, as opposed to “fat mass”!) declines naturally by 2-3% per decade from the age of ~30 years to ~70 years. This loss is attributed to gradual decreases in total body protein, and levels of potassium. Muscle mass loss accelerates after the age of ~65 years, particularly in the limbs. Body fat shows preferential visceral deposition – fat tends to accumulate on the waistline as age increases (and women show a marked move from ‘gynecoid’ (pear shape) patterning to ‘android’ (apple shape) patterning following menopause and the loss of estrogen).
All this sounds rather depressing and debilitating. It isn’t, actually, as all of these naturally occurring effects of aging can be ameliorated - perhaps not entirely prevented, but certainly slowed dramatically – via regular physical activity. I would like to motivate that it is not aerobic activity such as walking or swimming or cycling that has the greatest effect on these characteristics of aging, but rather resistance training.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) collates the results of studies worldwide, and summarises the evidence that we, as sport scientists and exercise physiologists, have accumulated in what are termed “position stands”. These are considered reliable and validated guidelines for exercise prescription and supervision. In 2009 the position stand regarding resistance training and the “older” yet healthy adult was revised (the previous review was in 2002) (Communications, 2009). It was reiterated, with strong evidence from well-controlled randomised controlled trials, that resistance training positively affects muscle wasting (sarcopenia) and thus also strength and power generation capacity of the muscles. This in turn positively affects balance, co-ordination, the ability to complete activities of daily living more readily, as well as influencing metabolic rate and concomitantly body composition.
Plain speak? Resistance training encourages the maintenance of muscle mass, counteracting the natural aging-related loss of muscle. Resistance training ensures retention of strength, which apart from being helpful when carrying grocery bags from the supermarket is fundamental in preventing musculo-skeletal injury (such as tripping and breaking an ankle). Resistance training is skeletally protective: more muscle mass means more stress on the bones, which means reduced loss of bone mass. Stronger bones means that later in life when falls become a risk factor, the bones will not be as brittle and fragile as aging determines they may be.
Is it safe?
Resistance training is safe for older adults, even those with existing health complications. However, all exercise should be carefully supervised by a professional – such as a biokineticist or personal trainer – to ensure your safety and to protect you from injury.
How much, how often?
The ACSM recommends that resistance training sessions be undertaken on 3 or more days of the week, at 60 – 80% of the 1Repetition Maximum (the maximum amount of weight you can lift, correctly, once). One to three sets of each exercise should be completed, at a rate of 8 – 12 repetitions per set at a slow to moderate lift velocity. What this means is that you should be able to manage 8 – 12 repeats of the exercise, at a slow and controlled pace, before moving on to the next exercise. Free weights (those that are not fixed to a weight stack) and machines (those that ‘fix’ your range of movement) can be utilised effectively, and while multi-muscle exercises (such as the chest press, or the travelling lunge) are most effective, simple exercises (such as the bicep curl, or the leg extension) may be included for specific training. What is important is that there is “progressive overload”. The body will get used to the volume and intensity of a select set of exercises within four weeks: give it a “fright” and mix those exercises up and increase the intensity, or no further gains will be seen. One thing to bear in mind is that we are all individuals, and we will all respond at different rates and in different ways.
Are there limitations to resistance training?
Yes – depending on your goals. If you are looking to increase your cardiovascular fitness (for example you are wanting to go on a really long hike, run a short race, or cycle the Argus) you would have to train your cardiovascular system specifically by engaging in aerobic endurance acitivity. However, endurance sport does not offer the muscle developing properties of resistance training, thus you will not find the muscle maintenance and concomitant metabolic benefits. Perhaps a combination of aerobic and resistance training is the ideal if these are your goals.
Do I risk becoming “muscle-bound” as a woman?
No. Women do not possess sufficient naturally occurring testosterone for this to happen. Yes, we differ in the amount of testosterone we have and so some women have the ability to develop more muscle than others, but it will never be an “ugly” or “unnatural” development. What may happen is that your scale-weight may increase (don’t worry!) as the muscle mass increases – but with correct dietary advice you can look forward to loss of fat mass at the same time, and so the ultimate result will be a toned, leaner you!
Will the effects of resistance training disappear?
Yes. Very quickly. If you have been training regularly for 12 weeks the gains you have felt will be all but lost within 4 weeks. Strength declines quite rapidly if not trained, and body composition (fat versus lean) effects follow rather more slowly as the body loses muscle and returns to a slower metabolic rate and thus more fat deposition.
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