Maintaining muscle strength through regular exercise as we age can help combat natural muscle loss, or sarcopenia.
By Joan Pagano
Sarco-What? Sarcopenia is the natural loss of muscle strength and function that occurs with aging. If you are over 40, you are already experiencing creeping muscle loss. Is it reversible? Yes—but only with an appropriate exercise program.
Medical and pharmaceutical initiatives are under way to address the issue of muscle loss, including research into techniques for diagnosing sarcopenia, nonsteroidal “muscle drugs” in the pipeline, and specialty food products to support muscle strength. But why would you want to take another pill or supplement when there is a safe, effective solution at hand? Experts say that the best approach to restoring or maintaining muscle strength is exercise, primarily strength training.
Sarcopenia is to the muscle what osteoporosis is to the bone, and strength training can be a remedy in both cases. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, women over 40 who lift weights can actually have better strength and bone density than women who are years younger.1
Strength training can turn back the clock. You can combat the effects of aging to look and feel younger. In her book Strong Women Stay Young (Bantam, 2005; $7.99), Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, a forerunner in researching the benefits of strength training for the over-40 population, writes, “After one year of strength training, women’s bodies were 15 to 20 years more youthful.”
If you are in your midforties, you may already feel like you have less energy and strength. It’s around this age that an inactive person begins to lose 10 percent of muscle mass per decade. Experts say that the loss accelerates after age 75, when an elderly person who doesn’t exercise loses 30 percent of muscle per decade.
The good news is that muscle mass and function can be regained at any age or fitness level. A study conducted at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University recruited 10 elderly volunteers of the average age of 90, all of whom had at least two chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Most relied on walkers or canes, and several had leg muscles so weak they couldn’t rise from a chair without using their arms.
The participants engaged in a progressive resistance-training program building to high-intensity strength training, using the same machines that 25-year-olds use in the gym. They worked out three days a week for eight weeks, using the heaviest weights they could lift in good form.
The results were astounding: muscle strength increased by 175 percent, walking speed and balance improved by 48 percent, and two of the volunteers discarded their canes. After returning to a sedentary lifestyle, however, participants lost 32 percent of maximum strength after only four weeks.2
Just imagine how strength training can help you manage the aging process if you start in your forties and stay strong with each passing decade. Being strong means you can be more independent and self-reliant at every age. When it comes to being physically active, weight training strengthens the muscles and joints, enhancing your aerobic workouts and sports activities. It makes you more resilient to illness and injury and less likely to suffer poor posture and back pain. It’s never too late to begin strength training, and the sooner you start, the longer you benefit. Ready to get started? Consider integrating the exercises included here to create a regular strength-training routine.
Top 10 At-Home Strength Exercises
Confused about how to get started lifting weights? Overwhelmed by all the choices of exercises and equipment? All you need for a full-body strength-training workout are two sets of dumbbells (one light and one 2 to 5 pounds heavier) and a sturdy chair. Perform one set of each of the exercises for 8 to 12 repetitions. Do the routine two to three times a week on non-consecutive days, allowing one day of rest in between.
These are the top 10 exercises to target all the major muscle groups.
As you progress, you can add one to two sets of each exercise, using heavier weights and incorporating new exercises. Remember that you should periodically change your routine to keep your muscles stimulated.
© Copyright 2014 Joan L. Pagano. All rights reserved.
The range of opportunities to engage in exercise today is extensive. From an explosion in running and walking events and training plans aimed at women, to an ever-growing number of fitness classes—think yoga, Pilates, Zumba, spinning—and a boom in high-intensity offerings like boot camps and CrossFit training, there is no end to the potential to participate. Amid all of these options, sometimes it’s important to go back to the basics, to dig in and understand the foundation of the exercises you’re engaged in, and to learn the why and how of your body’s physical abilities.
Joan Pagano’s Strength Training Exercises for Women: Tone, Sculpt, and Stay Strong for Life (DK, 2014; $22.95) provides welcome insight into the value of consistent, careful strength training as an essential practice for healthy aging. The book offers easy-to-follow descriptions of key strengthening exercises, accompanied by excellent photos that show the progression of each move (and modifications for various fitness levels), and is packed with valuable information about form, equipment, and creating effective programs.
While exercise trends may come and go, this book is a go-to guide for women that will remain a trusted resource as they age, providing clear information about the value of strength and the lasting benefits in health and quality of life.
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