Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
You may think that lifting weights is only for teenagers, bodybuilders, and athletes. According to Professor Ormsbee, though, maintaining muscle is not only important for these individuals, but also for a person of any age or ability.
Aging and Lifting Weights
Research has repeatedly shown that lifting weights can help prevent age-associated chronic diseases like osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes. It is also a major factor in allowing you to move around and maintain your independence.
You need at least enough muscle mass to walk unassisted, get out of a chair, and carry groceries. The best part about lifting weights is that there are no age restrictions.
Now, you may need a modification of an exercise or two, but that is where a certified personal trainer can come into play and show you proper form to prevent injury and make any changes you may need to accommodate any physical limitation. Consider Ernestine Shepherd, who began to lift weights at age 56 and started competing as a bodybuilder in her 70s.
As we age, a phenomenon called sarcopenia occurs, which is the natural, progressive loss of muscle mass. Studies have shown that between the ages of 40 and 50 years old, we can lose more than 8% of our muscle mass, and that can accelerate to more than 15% per decade after the age of 75, if measures are not taken to prevent it.
Fortunately, we can do much to slow this process down. Most people think that aging alone causes us to lose muscle. Now, though, research is showing that it’s not simply aging but rather the lack of physical activity that is responsible for sarcopenia.
One study looked at lifelong exercisers to determine if chronic exercise could prevent the loss of muscle mass and strength in aging adults. The researchers took 20 men and 20 women between the ages of 40 and 81 years old who exercised at least four to five times per week and competed as triathletes.
These older athletes were put through a series of tests to study their health, strength, and body composition using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI technology. MRI gives us a precise view of the fat and muscle in specific regions of your body. This study used it on the quadriceps muscles of the thigh to look at muscle quality.
As you might expect, the younger people in the study did have a lower body mass index, or BMI, and body fat percentage compared to older athletes. However, the lean muscle mass and strength were no different between the younger and the older athletes.
What’s more is that these benefits were similar in both men and women. This highlights the fact that long-term exercise training can aid in preserving muscle mass and may also prevent increases in body fat as we age.
Additionally, this study helps to debunk a common myth by showing that aging alone doesn’t cause the dramatic drop in muscle mass that we often see. Rather, it’s the chronic disuse and inactivity that are primarily to blame.
Strong at Any Age
“One of the most interesting people to discuss is a man who is a prime example of how exercise and a healthy diet can improve your muscle mass and quality of life,” Professor Ormsbee said. “He’s John Nagy.”
Nagy is a participant in the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence at McMaster University in Canada. Not only does he exercise vigorously, but he is also 97 years old.
A recent interview described his daily routine like this: his warm-up begins with movements in the shower, followed by floor and ball exercises for his core and his back. He’ll then walk to the University—two miles each way—or make up for it on his treadmill, followed by a 90-minute workout at the University.
He also keeps dumbbells, resistance bands, and a Swiss Ball in his apartment next to the treadmill along with a stationary bike. Mr. Nagy embodies the idea of using regular exercise to maintain his quality of life and to stay able-bodied so that he can live to the fullest.
“Just like Ernestine Shepherd,” Professor Ormsbee said. “Maybe we should all take a page—or maybe a few chapters—out of their books.”
Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.