The Fountain of Youth:  Benefits of Resistance Training With Age.  Do You Even Lift?

Author:  Dr. Nathan Charpentier, CISSN, CFT, CMTM
Owner, Practitioner, GrassFed Farmacy LLC
Coach Manager/Barbell Club Representative, Arete CrossFit/Rogue Barbell Club

The Problem: Ever Aging Populations, Ever Growing Preventable Diseases

Maintaining health and preventing disease beyond the age of fifty could be as simple as incorporating resistance training to your daily and weekly routines. Many aging adults are unaware of the major benefits resistance training (aka weightlifting, strength training) provides in terms of maintaining health and preventing disease.  According to some experts, this unknowingness is believed to be the main reason why so many people beyond the age of fifty are not actively engaging in strength training. It is well understood that with age comes an increase in the risk of developing disease and “frailty” (things like loss of strength, muscle mass and ability to carry out everyday tasks).  Furthermore, considering the “baby boomers” of the late 1940s to early 1960s are approaching or over “the other side of the hill”, this lack of knowledge and understanding could mean major negative health consequences in the very near future.  To only add to the chaos, research estimates the 65-years-and-older adult population will more than double, from 43 million to 92 million, by the year 2060.  It is no wonder why diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass), osteoporosis (loss of bone mass), obesity (or increased fat mass), dementia, alzheimer’s, depression and other mental health phenomena are rising at exponential rates with this ever increasing population of seniors.   What can be done to keep people younger longer?

In my practice, I have seen an incredible shift in the way disease is being treated first hand.  Within only the last decade, development of and prescription treatment of preventable disease has sky rocketed.  This trend seems to be a never ending cascade of continuously being prescribed more and more pills.  It is not that medications are getting better, medication simply is not the best form of treatment for diseases of aging: diet and exercise are the most effective treatments, period.  Why?  Because the data tells us the more pills you have on board, the higher chances you have of developing further health conditions and requiring more medications down the line.  Medications aren’t the best long term option for health maintenance and disease.  The increasing amount of medications doesn’t just lead to more medications, it also causes even more health burdens in itself.  This is because medications have side effects, and those side effects are more likely to occur with the more medications you take.

Funding preventative research and implementing mass education and lifestyle interventions are the best methods to fighting off preventable diseases of aging.
We currently spend most of our time, money and resources looking for a cure to preventable problems (preventable through diet and exercise).  This overwhelming majority of medical spending on treatments of preventable disease is estimated to be almost $300-500 billion dollars per year!  Proper nutrition, frequent resistance and aerobic exercise, and not smoking could literally eliminate this financial burden of disease if more funding went towards educating and implementing these ideas.  It could improve quality of life for millions of people.  We need to get the word out!

Hopefully you yourself are partaking in some form of resistance training or at least for the most part considering it.  If you need more information to help with your decision making, please read on as we explore a small list of the many benefits resistance training provides as we age.

The Solution:  Resistance Training, Top Shelf Treatment for Aging

As people age, they tend to get less active. This may be due to things like switching to a less active career or retiring.  Lack of activity could also be due to physiological (physical) reasons, such as the natural loss of muscle mass that comes with age (aka sarcopenia).  As you grow older, your rate of losing muscle mass and strength increases exponentially (especially after the age of sixty) without resistance training.

Can we actually slow down the aging process?  If so how?

The answer is interestingly, yes.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”  ~ Benjamin Franklin.

Aside from dietary measures (such as consuming enough protein), resistance training or weight lifting coupled with intense exercise has been shown to drastically help maintain your muscle mass.  How would building muscle (aka lean body mass) help slow our aging and prevent disease long term?  Let’s explore further:

Resistance Training and Muscles Staying “Young(er)”:  Resistance training can maintain or even increase a persons muscle mass into old age.  Even though muscle and strength start to typically decline in the fifth decade of life, it doesn’t mean you can’t slow the process down and prevent its onset.  One study showed weight training (such as three or more times a week) seemed to not only preserve muscle mass in older seniors, it actually kept the muscles metabolically “younger”.  The study revealed that older adults (well into their 60s and beyond) who participated in frequent weight training appeared to have similar muscle profiles to people twenty years younger who did no exercise at all.  The conclusion of the study: your muscles might age considerably slower and maintain their youthful metabolism and strength if you consistently lift weights.    Remember, your heart and lungs are muscles too, although they are not voluntary (you can not necessarily control them), you can still train them. Resistance training at higher intensities has been shown to improve cardiovascular and respiratory health as well as aerobic exercise.

Muscle Is Protective Against Life:   “Stronger people are harder to kill than weak people and are more useful in general” – Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength.  Muscle mass seems to have a paradoxical protective effect.  You could potentially be “overweight” or “obese” by the standard measures of body mass index, but in actuality, you could have a low percentage of body fat.  Your body fat percentage is a measurement of your total body fat versus your total amount of lean mass (everything else).  Current measuring tools like body mass index (BMI) don’t do body fat justice.  It is no wonder that studies using BMI to assess a persons body fat may come with mixed results, and when you actually account for lean muscle mass, the results might change significantly.  It makes sense because muscle is a metabolic powerhouse: it burns fat and produces energy.  People who have a healthy ratio of muscle mass to fat (lean and athletic in appearance) tend to exercise and eat healthy too.  Consequently, they have fewer preventable diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes.  They also tend to survive incidents like car crashes, falls, burns, illness and disease better than their skinnier and weaker counterparts.  This maybe because muscle gives one a healthier metabolism, immune system and stronger bone structure (as we will explain further).

Maintaining Muscle Reduces the Risk of Developing Frailty:  As mentioned earlier, you are bound to lose muscle and strength with age, well at least if you don’t lift weights for exercise.  It is inevitable.  The rate at which you lose your muscle and strength seems to be  dependent on how often you are performing resistance training.  For example, consider the phrase, “use it or lose it”.  Studies suggest resistance training slows the decay of muscle and strength with age.  Not only will weight training provide you with younger muscle and protection against disease, it will also help ensure you keep that muscle around.  Your hard work pays off because you may be helping to maintain your independence longer, to be able to carry out normal activities of daily living like walking, climbing stairs, washing dishes, showering, putting on clothes with minimal extra assistance.  When frailty starts to develop, so does the dependence on others for doing those types of tasks.

Young Body, Young Mind – Improving Mental Health With Resistance Training:  With age comes a greater risk of mental decline.  It could be memory related, such as developing Alzheimer’s disease, where you could potentially forget things like who your family is, or even forget who you yourself are. Or mental health issues could be things like dementia, where you could forget how to perform simple daily tasks of living like doing the dishes, laundry, or dressing yourself.  Whatever the case may be, mental decline is an incredibly hot area of research. Currently, the most common treatment for mental decline is a prescription that will either hopefully slow the progression or that will sedate someone who is irritated by a deep personal confusion.  Resistance training has shown promise in preventing mental decline and promoting mental health.  Learning and practicing functional movement and challenging the nervous system through exercise can promote the growth of brain cells.  Not only that, resistance training also keeps your nervous system in check by maintaining/improving things like balance, gait, and reaction time.  This means tripping, falling, and dependency on a handicap ramp may be preventable or significantly delayed by many years.

Exercise not only builds new brain cells and keeps your nervous system firing on all cylinders, it also releases natural “feel good” chemicals like endorphins.  Endorphins may improve mood and help with depression.  In fact, some studies suggest exercise is just as good at treating depression, if not better, than taking an antidepressant without exercising.

Get A Grip, It Could Mean Living Longer:  Some researchers looked into the role of mid-life grip strength on extreme longevity (aka living into your nineties and beyond).  It turns out, when coupled with healthy lifestyle habits (like not smoking, and being physically active outside of work for more than an hour a day), grip strength was a strong predictor of someone living past the age of 60 and into their later 80s, 90s and 100s.  So, in short, resistance training can strengthen your grip.   Interesting side note, the people in this study who survived past 100 years old actually required less hospital care, too.

Working Out, Down To The Bone:   Osteoporosis is a condition where there is loss of bone mass, usually due to “aging”.  However, some studies suggest bone mass is directly related to the amount of resistance applied to bone.  Yes, weight training may help keep your bones stronger into old age.  Daily walking and aerobic exercise are limited in this regard because these forms of activity simply do not provide enough load bearing force on your bones.   Bones need to be physically challenged to maintain their strong structure and promote bone growth.  Frequent weight training has been shown to promote bone growth and, accordingly, slow bone loss or even completely reverse it!  Considering hip fractures in the elderly have a 50% mortality rate, strong bones will certainly aid in being on the living side of that probability.

Resistance Training Improves Immune Function:   Resistance training can be stressful.  It is tiring, it is hard work at times, and the weight training can be fatiguing.   But, weightlifting mostly provides a form of stress called eustress.  Eustress  is considered a beneficial type of stress in that it seems to help boost immune function.   The consequences?  By undergoing eustress, you might get sick less often, which may mean missing fewer days from work and not taking as many trips to the hospital (and even worse, staying overnight).

Did someone say side effects?  It seems like after every drug infomercial you see in a television ad, hear on the radio, or read in a magazine, there is a long list of possible side effects.  Almost every medication causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  I am sure exercise might cause that on occasion if done too strenuously.  However, for the most part, exercise has very minor side effects.  Certainly, there are none that are life threatening.  Sure, you might get a little sore, or maybe fatigued after a long session, but the benefits overwhelmingly outweigh the risks.  Remember, exercise and proper nutrition trump almost every medication out there for the long term when they are prescribed properly.  It could mean saving hundreds of billions of dollars a year in health spending.  Incorporating more resistance based exercise might sacrifice your time daily, but long term, it will keep you younger, stronger, safer, more active and ultimately cost less.  It very well could mean you will earn more quality time doing the things you love and enjoying your independence versus being a frequent flyer to the hospital or medical specialist, and using the handicap ramp access.

OK, So Where Do I Start?  Start by finding a fitness center/studio, gym, training hall or what have you that has some form of coaching. There are plenty of well qualified certified instructors out there that can put you on a resistance training program that will build up your strength.  Shop around and find one that fits your needs.  Some offer classes, and maybe even classes for specific age groups or women only, etc.

Concluding Thoughts:

We are coming upon the largest population increase of senior citizens recorded in our history.  Not only that, the population of humans over 65 years of age is expected to more than double in the next half century.  Many of the diseases that come with age can be prevented and or treated with resistance training.   It is very likely that frequent weight training can mean the difference of living independently at 100 years old and dying of a preventable condition at 65 years old.  Incorporate weekly weight training into your daily life and reap the rewards of your efforts for a lifetime to come.   Lack of awareness and spending on preventable medicine may be the major cause to this tragic tale.  So, you need to ask yourself one question, do I even lift though?  Get the word out, get to the gym, and lift!