Lifting weights at any age has huge rewards, but doing it after 50 can actually change your life. And it’s never too late to start lifting. Age is no limit to fitness and strength training in particular is recommended as we get older.
With age comes joint stiffness, loss of strength, balance and coordination, and other ailments of both the body and mind. Some people experience some of these declines as early as their forties but they become more likely, the older we get.
As both men and women age, their muscle fibres shrink in number and size, which contributes to a loss of strength. Genetics, diet, smoking, alcohol use and a lack of physical activity can all contribute to this decline.
However, the good news is that resistance exercise, such as lifting weights, can help prevent and even reverse much of this decline by increasing the size of shrunken muscle fibres. By building muscle, and thereby adding more weight to the skeleton, our bones are stimulated to strengthen and grow.
By increasing bone mass through resistance training the risk of developing osteoporosis and fractures is decreased.
While aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, cycling or swimming is also important to look after our heart and lungs, resistance training is the only type of exercise that can substantially slow or reverse the decline in muscle mass, bone density and strength, which were once considered to be unavoidable parts of aging.
There is also evidence that strength training over 50 improves sleep and moods.(1)
Positive effects of resistance training as we age
Just remember that strong muscles = strong bones!
As we age our bone mass naturally decreases and this puts us at greater risk of developing osteoporosis. Bones become less dense as we get older for a number of reasons, including inactive lifestyles and hormonal changes.
In women, menopause triggers the loss of minerals in bone tissue, due to a drop in oestrogen. And in men, the gradual decline in sex hormones can lead to the later development of osteoporosis.
Resistance training can help to protect against these losses as it puts stress on our bones by tugging and pushing them, and this stress can prompt bone forming cells into action. This, in turn, helps to oﬀset age-related declines in bone health.
Resistance training not only helps to maintain bone density but it also helps to maintain cardiovascular health. It is well-known that aerobic exercise is important to maintain the health of our hearts as age, however research has found that lifting weights is actually healthier for the heart than going for a run or walk.(2)
During the study in November 2018, scientists looked at the health records of more than 4,000 people and concluded that, while both forms of exercise reduce the risk of developing heart disease, static activities such as lifting weights have a greater effect on the heart than an equivalent amount of dynamic exercise such as running, walking or cycling.
The research challenges commonly held beliefs that cardiovascular pursuits like running are of the greatest benefit to the heart. However, it backs up previous studies which suggest that heavy static exercise gives the circulatory system a better workout because the oxygen expenditure is more intense.
A decrease in muscle mass and muscle metabolic quality as we age are thought to be primary drivers of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes in the older population. However, research(3) has shown that resistance training can improve insulin sensitivity.
Insulin sensitivity refers to how sensitive the body’s cells are in response to insulin. High insulin sensitivity allows the cells of the body to use blood glucose more effectively, reducing blood sugar.
Low insulin sensitivity is known as insulin resistance. The cells do not absorb as much glucose, which might lead to excessively high blood sugar levels. Without management, this can progress to type 2 diabetes.
The good news is that some lifestyle changes may help improve levels of sensitivity, including getting more exercise, such as resistance training. A 2018 review(4) of 11 studies found an association between increased physical activity levels and improved insulin sensitivity.
In addition, strength training also has the ability to reduce the signs and symptoms of numerous other chronic diseases such as heart disease, and arthritis, while also improving sleep and reducing depression.(5)
It is common to hear stories of people improving their mental health through exercise but a study(6) has actually found that resistance training in particular has a positive effect on the mind.
According to the research done by the University of Limerick lifting weights is associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. It also found that one of the reasons many people stick to strength training once they’ve tried it is because it feels empowering, confidence-building and satisfying to see your progress.
According to the NHS(7), a review of existing data found that both aerobic exercise and strength training can also improve cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, and how well people carry out tasks.
The study found that people benefited even if they were already showing signs of mental decline, which means that exercise might help those with early signs of dementia to stay mentally alert for longer.
The researchers say their findings “suggest that an exercise programme with components of both aerobic and resistance-type training, of at least moderate intensity and at least 45 minutes per session, on as many days of the week as possible, is beneficial to cognitive function in adults aged more than 50 years”.
The reasons why physical exercise benefits mental function are thought to include better blood flow to the brain, which keeps nerve cells healthy and supplied with oxygen, lower inflammation and less cellular damage.
The Chief Medical Officer for England recommends that adults take part in at least at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity such as cycling or brisk walking every week, and strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles(8).
Research has shown that exercise, particularly strength training, benefits both the body and the mind for the over 50s. It increases motivation and confidence, fights off symptoms of depression, aids sleep, increases bone density, and helps to ward off chronic diseases and other age-related ailments.
Resistance training helps to maintain or even increase mobility as we age, and benefits mental sharpness and metabolic health. Done regularly, it increases muscle mass, strength and function in the older population.
While aerobic exercise is important too, resistance training has been shown to offer many benefits in the battle against the aging process and is another tool in the box for the older population to remain physically active.
In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Benefits of Pumping Iron in Later Life”(9) one man’s story depicts the values of strength training well. At 75 years old, a retired thoracic surgeon had such severe spinal pain as a result of being hunched over patients for years during surgery that he couldn’t even manage to walk for more than a block or two. After incorporating strength training into his workout routine, he began enjoying the things in life that he used to previously. After three years of regular strength training he was back playing nine holes of golf twice a week, and walked 6 miles a day during his summer holiday.
Lifting weights can have a positive effect on your mind as well as your muscles, and help you to live your best life for longer.