Interest in strength training declines somewhat with age, partially because older people are less concerned with building muscle for aesthetic reasons. However, aesthetics isn’t the only or even the most important reason to train your muscles against resistance and to build as much strength as possible. Once you’re over the age of 30, a slow decline in muscle tissue begins and it speeds up after the age of 55. Along with the loss of muscle tissue, you lose strength and power and that can impact all aspects of your life, even your ability to get around.
So, it’s even MORE important to weight train later in life. In fact, strength training can help reduce the negative impact certain age-related health conditions have on your overall health and well-being. Plus, it helps prevent some age-related conditions as well. Curious as to which ones? Here are a few of the most common health conditions people develop later in life and how strength training helps.
Arthritis comes in a number of forms, some of which are predominantly inflammatory and others that are degenerative. The most common is osteoarthritis, a common age-related condition marked by degeneration of the cartilage that lines the bones within a joint cavity. It’s the cartilage that cushions the bones and when it wears away, bone rubs against bone. Ouch!
Unfortunately, osteoarthritis can progress to the point that it causes joint pain and loss of function. The good news? Strength training helps improve functionality and reduce pain, even in people with active osteoarthritis. A meta-analysis of eight studies found that strength training reduced pain in osteoarthritis sufferers by 35% and improved functionality in the lower limbs by 33%. That’s important for preserving mobility to do the things you have to do and the things you enjoy.
The goal of strength training is to strengthen the muscles that overly the joints. Exercise also improves joint mobility, although it’s best to reduce the amount of high-impact exercise that you do. Ask your physician what type of exercise they recommend if you have severe arthritis. When you work out, do a dynamic warm-up before strength training and stretch the muscles you worked afterward. Listen to your body and if you exercise pain, take a break or modify your workouts.
One of the biggest concerns in people who have osteoporosis is the risk of falling and fracturing a hip. Studies show that up to one in two women over the age of 50 will develop a fracture related to osteoporosis at some point. You’re at higher risk for osteoporosis if you have small bones or are underweight, if you smoke, if you’re post-menopausal, if you’re Caucasian or Asian, and if you have certain medical conditions or take certain medications. Family history is also a risk factor.
On the plus side, strength training to improve muscle strength combined with balance training can greatly reduce the risk of falling. In one study of older adults with an average age of 80, the risk of falling was reduced by 35% in those who did structured exercises and stayed physically active. Plus, strength training reduces further bone loss and, as some studies suggest, may even help rebuild bone. So, don’t just strength train for your muscles but for bone health as well.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is now a national epidemic. In fact, it’s now the seventh most common cause of death in the United States. Can strength training help? Studies show that strength training improves insulin sensitivity. It does this by helping glucose enter cells without forcing the pancreas to pump out more insulin. Plus, strength training improves body composition by increasing lean body tissue and reducing body fat percentage. That means better blood sugar control! Yes, aerobic exercise is important for blood sugar control but strength training is no less important for people with type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes. Plus, regular physical activity may lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes by preventing age-related weight gain.
Back pain also becomes more of a problem as we age. One of the most common causes of back pain in older people is degeneration of the discs in the spine due to osteoarthritis. In fact, a meta-analysis revealed that strength training reduces pain and enhances functionality in older adults. What type is best? Exercises that target the core improve back pain more than other forms of exercise, including aerobics. So, don’t skimp on aerobics but make sure you’re strength training and working your core as well.
Risk of Falling
Strength training also reduces the risk of falling. By strengthening muscles in the muscles in the core and lower body and by improving balance, strength training helps older people avoid one of the most common causes of injury and mortality – falling and fracturing a bone. Sadly, the mortality rate from a hip fracture is as high as 50% in the first six months. Let’s do what we can to prevent them!
The Bottom Line
Now that you know how strength training helps with the management of a number of age-related health problems, you’ll be pleased to learn that it also reduces overall mortality. In fact, a study showed that strength training at least twice weekly reduced the odds of dying prematurely from all causes by 46%. So, strength training doesn’t just help older people live better with certain health problems, it helps them live longer.
Unfortunately, only 10% of adults over the age of 65 train their muscles against resistance – and that number should be higher, much higher. So, make sure strength training is an ingrained habit for you so that once you reach the twilight years of life, you’ll keep doing it. If you have older family members, encourage them to do resistance training too. No matter what your age, strength training is vital.
Arthritis-Health.com. “Strength Training Can Crush Arthritis Pain”
International Osteoporosis Foundation. “Exercise Recommendations”
WebMD. “Women and Weight Training for Osteoporosis”
National Osteoporosis Foundation. “What is Osteoporosis and What Causes It?”
American Diabetes Association. “Overall Numbers, Diabetes and Prediabetes”
American Diabetes Association. “Resistance Training and Type 2 Diabetes”
Science Daily. “Strength training helps older adults live longer”
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Scientifica (Cairo). 2016; 2016: 3230427.
Crimson Publishers. “Efficacy of Core Strengthening Exercise on a Geriatric Subject with Lumbar Spine Degeneration-Evidence Based Study”