Most people recognize the classic physical signs of aging: Aches and pains in the morning, new wrinkles, and more gray hairs. Awareness of other age-related health risks such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease are also top of mind, but one major health concern often flies under the radar for patients and providers.
Sarcopenia – aging-related loss of skeletal muscle mass, strength, and function – can be caused by inadequate nutrition, lack of exercise, and hormonal changes.
About 25-45% of U.S. seniors have sarcopenia. Among men and women of varying ethnicities, approximately 8.85% of people 40-64 have sarcopenia; that nearly doubles to 15.51% in people 65 and older.
When we lose muscle, the body must replace it with something – and that is almost always fat. While some loss of muscle mass is expected with aging, losing too much can be detrimental. Increased body fat deposits increase the risk of obesity and metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and cancers of the breast, liver, and colon.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a healthy body fat composition for a man age 60-69 is 21-23% body fat and for women it’s 23.2-27.5%. Building and retaining lean muscle prevents the body from storing too much extra fat.
Sarcopenia can start as early as age 40, so the time to act is now.
Strength training is the only activity proven to slow the progression of sarcopenia and reduce its effects. But you don’t have to deadlift 250 lbs. to see results! Resistance exercises and light lifting can help you increase strength and retain more muscle as you age, leaving less room for fat to accumulate and improving your overall health.
Full-body benefits of weight training for seniors
Many seniors focus on cardiovascular or balance exercises, such as walking or swimming. While those are important and aerobic exercise is excellent for cardiovascular health, it is less effective at maintaining and building muscle.
When you incorporate resistance exercises such as yoga, tai chi, or light weightlifting into your daily routine, you’re unlikely to get big and bulky, but you will start to notice physical changes, such as:
- Tighter, firmer arms and legs
- Less effort to perform lifting-related chores
- Fewer aches and pains in the joints
The biggest changes occur out of sight. By adding just two to three 30-minute strength training sessions a week to regular exercise, seniors can significantly improve muscle mass and influence health risk factors such as:
- Reduced risk of fractures: Research shows that resistance and weight-bearing exercises such as lunges and squats stimulate bone growth and help maintain bone mass and density, decreasing the risk of fracture.
- Improved mobility: Strengthening the muscles will allow you to walk farther with better balance, as well as perform daily tasks such as getting in and out of chairs and the shower more easily.
- Enhanced mental health: Data from more than 50 clinical studies showed that participating in strength training increased self-esteem and decreased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fibromyalgia pain.
- Trimmer midsection: Strength training combined with cardio exercise can help burn away stubborn belly fat and reduce the risk of metabolic disease – a strong precursor to heart attack and stroke.
The beauty of strength training in your golden years is you don’t need a bunch of fancy equipment to reap the benefits. Here are a few tips to get started safely and affordably.
Strength training on your terms
Don’t worry if you’ve never done strength training before; you can make it your own by incorporating it into your favorite activities.
Use resistance bands. I strongly recommend resistance bands for all seniors, especially those who might have trouble gripping or lifting handheld weights. Resistance bands, which help you build strength through the force it takes to stretch them, come in a variety of tensions and thicknesses. Best of all, they’re portable, so you can pack them in your bag to use on break at work or on vacation, or bring them to a friend’s house to exercise together.
Lift light weights and do more reps. Research shows that doing more repetitions with light weights is more effective at building muscle and reducing fat than lifting heavy weights with fewer reps. Start with 2-5 lb. dumbbells and move up half a pound at a time if you feel as if you’re not being challenged enough.
Combine strength training and cardio workouts. My grandfather, who was one of the fittest people I’ve ever known, used to wear 2 lb. ankle weights when he took walks. He combined the benefits of cardio with weight training for his calves, hamstrings, and glutes. A modern-day equivalent might be HIIT workouts – high intensity interval training – which rotate between exercises such as jogging in place and bodyweight resistance moves, like squats.
Talk with a doctor about muscle loss
There is no single exam or test to diagnose sarcopenia. Often, we start with a conversation about a patient’s lifestyle – their physical and mental health, stamina for daily activities, and eating and exercise patterns.
If a patient is already physically active, we discuss how much time they spend doing cardiovascular exercises versus strength training. Adding a few sessions per week can make a significant difference in how you feel and in your long-term health – even for patients who are struggling with painful or disabling conditions such as arthritis or stroke.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 76 years – 79 for women and 73 for men. But many people are living much longer, well into their 80s and 90s. Doing regular strength training is an excellent way to improve the quality of those additional years.
My mantra is, “If you don’t use it, you will eventually lose it.” You’re the only one who can protect your muscle mass, and the treatment is simple: Find a strength training activity you enjoy and make it a regular part of your routine. Growing stronger and increasing lean muscle mass can help you stay active and live your best life.