According to researchers, once a person hits forty they begin to lose muscle mass more rapidly. Past that point, it's common for an individual to lose between 0.5 and 1 percent of muscle mass per year. The scientific term for the age-related decline of muscle mass, muscle quality, strength and physical function is "sarcopenia". It's an inevitable consequence of aging, but it's also exaggerated by a sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary behaviors. And with life expectancies on the rise around the world it's sure to become a bigger issue in the next few decades.
In layman's terms, sarcopenia leads (eventually) to an inability to perform life's basic tasks: sitting down and standing up, climbing the stairs, carrying groceries, picking things up off the floor, that sort of thing. Along with this inability to perform simple functions comes an increased risk of injury while performing them, and, in severe cases, a significant drop in quality of life. However, there is a countermeasure, something that can attenuate the progression of sarcopenia and treat those currently being impacted by it: physical activity. Specifically, strength training.
MYTHS AND REALITIES
Many current guidelines recognize the importance of physical activity. These from the World Health Organisation, for example, propose a goal of 150 minutes of moderate or vigorous aerobic exercise per week, alongside a vague suggestion to do "muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups" at least twice a week. Traditionally, these suggestions have been interpreted as a call to take up "endurance-centric" exercise like running, swimming and cycling. But researchers, medical practitioners, and coaches alike have begun to uncover the benefits of strength training, especially for older populations. For example:
- It promotes the preservation of joints range of motion.
- It strengthens bones, offsetting the risk of breaks and fractures from falls and traumas.
- It enables us to function from day-to-day with a decreased chance of injury.
- It enhances our quality of life. It makes movement easier and more efficient, so we feel empowered to do more, for longer.
- It makes a person less likely to feel or develop symptoms of clinical depression.
This increasing awareness of the benefits of strength training is great, but it has also resulted in a flood of contradictory information. Asking "What sort of strength training is best?" often brings up a hundred different answers. So, below are a few myths and realities concerning strength training and a couple of suggestions to help you get started.
- Myth: "Strength training" means benching, squatting and deadlifting heavy weights.
- Reality: "Strength training" means working against an opposing force.
A barbell offers an opposing force. But so does a kettlebell. And a resistance band. And a leg press machine. And gravity. The purpose of strength training is to use an opposing force relative to you to improve the stability, mobility and strength of your bones, muscles and connective tissue.
- Myth: It's easy to injure yourself.
- Reality: You'll only injure yourself if you neglect proper form and attempt something far beyond your current ability.
If you go trail running in heels, you wouldn't be surprised to come home with a twisted ankle. Same with strength training. If you've never picked up a kettlebell and decide to try a clean-and-press, you may end up with a bruised wrist. Like all forms of exercise, injury occurs when you take unnecessary risks. Never squatted before? Don't try a jump-squat onto a 20" box.
- Myth: You need to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment.
- Reality: You can do it anywhere, anytime, with practically anything.
It's possible to strength train on a hillside, in your garden, in your living room, in the gym, anywhere really. Gyms have fancy equipment that you can't take everywhere with you, but a resistance band packs easily into a travel bag. As does a suspension trainer. And wherever you go, you always have your body, which means you always have access to things like push-ups, pull-ups, squats and other simple and complex bodyweight moves.
- Myth: It's time-consuming.
- Reality: It's remarkably time-efficient.
You don’t have to curl, press, or plank every day to see results. In fact, you shouldn’t. An effective routine doesn’t have to take too long. Focus on compound exercises. These use several muscles and joints together rather than working a particular muscle or group of muscles independently, allowing a strength training session to be short and fun instead of long and boring. For example, a few sets of squats-to-overhead-presses can replace shoulder presses, planks, hip bridges and leg extensions.
- Myth: It will alter your appearance dramatically.
- Reality: It can alter your appearance dramatically, but most of the time it will slightly improve your posture and help you to lose body fat.
For the body to put on weight, specifically muscle, a significant surplus of energy and nutrients is required. Creating that surplus is hard, and creating the conditions for that surplus to do a specific job like put on muscle mass is even harder. So men and women, particularly of an advanced age, don't need to worry about bulking up. It's not as easy as you think. As we age the body doesn't want us to add more muscle (it's expensive to maintain), and women especially will have a hard time doing it (they don't have as great a supply of anabolic hormones like testosterone).
Feel a little bit less apprehensive about strength training? Want to give it a go or learn more about it? Here are a few suggestions:
- Find an Expert
Ideally, it's best to have someone there to guide you through the principles of strength training, assess your capacities and create a program structured specifically for you.
- Go to a Class
The above is not always feasible, so consider splitting the cost with a few friends, or attend a local fitness class. Many of them will be focused on particular aspects of strength training--kettlebells, or free weights, or bodyweight circuits, for example--but all will be able to teach you a few things in a safe and friendly environment.
- Talk to People Who Do it
In addition to working with an expert and/or heading to a class, it's always helpful to ask people (online and offline) about their experience with strength training. What works for them, what doesn't work for them, the things they've tried, the things they haven't, what they've picked up from others and where they learned it.
- Do Some Research and Start Practicing
I said above that you can strength train anywhere, anytime, with anything. If you can't get an expert, don't want to go to a class and don't know anyone who does it, look online for some simple exercises and try them out. Keep in mind that it's best to take it slow and steady. If you're uncertain about an exercise look for a regression. If you can't do a proper push-up, consider elevating your body to 45 degrees; it will be easier. If you can't do that, try just lowering yourself gently to the floor and resetting. Can't do that? Just get used to holding yourself up in the top position. Similarly, if something is too easy, look for a progression. Bodyweight squat too easy? Try altering the tempo, increasing the total range of motion, adding weight, or combining it with other movements to make it more challenging.
As we age, our body deteriorates. That's life. But strength training can take the edge off of this deterioration. It helps preserve muscle mass and bone strength, it maintains joints range of motion, and it has multiple mental benefits too. Strength training doesn't mean lifting hundreds of pounds. It can be fast and fun, it can be done anywhere with anything, it isn't especially risky and it won't turn us into hulking monsters. What it will do is help us maximize our quality of life as we get older. So find an expert, go to a class, talk to people, do some research, and most important of all, start practicing.