I hear the question at least annually from parents of younger children, asking if their grade-schoolers are too young to start strength training. The answer is, done properly, it is never too early.
However, the better question would and should be from the adult children of older parents, asking when it is too late to start strength training. Once again, the answer is never.
For children, a good conditioning program will help boost athletic performance, improve self-esteem, and – believe it or not – contribute to better academic performance.
For older adults, strength – or the lack of it – is a matter of life and death.
On Thursday, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published an editorial entitled, “Urgent need for integrating physical exercise into geriatric medicine: a call to action.”
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According to an excerpt from the article, “Habitual exercise engagement has long been known to attenuate many of the cognitive and physical declines seen in ‘typical’ aging, suggesting that disuse rather than inexorable biological decline contributes substantially to the (aging process).”
A clinical commentary in the October 2003 issue of the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy (JOSPT) offered some stark statistics to underscore just how urgent that need is. As we age, unless prompted otherwise, our bodies gradually lose muscle and bone mass. Sarcopenia and osteopenia, respectively, are the scientific terms.
According to the JOSPT story, “Decreases in muscle mass begin to occur as early as age 25 … and progress to the point where by (age 80), one-half of the skeletal muscle has been lost.”
Decreased strength translates into increased falls – generally harmless when it happens to a baby, disastrous for an adult who has farther to go with less padding before hitting the ground.
“Falls are the leading cause of accidental deaths among the elderly, and many of these falls occur on stairs, where accidents during stair descent outnumber those of stair ascent by more than 3 to 1,” wrote the authors of the JOSPT piece. “In our previous work, (regular leg exercises) in high fall-risk elderly individuals improved stair descent performance 20 percent and balance 7 percent, and significantly decreased the risk of falling.”
Former NFL strength and conditioning coach Ken Croner, now with Fitness Pointe in Munster, put the need for strength training in more practical terms. “As we get older,” he said, “we don’t move as well. When you’re putting things in the cupboard or picking up your grandchildren, if you get a little bit stronger, you can do those things easier.”
Unfortunately, too few older Americans are picking up weights and putting on weight instead. According to an article published last month on WebMD’s Nourish page, “Only 9% of people over 75 perform strength training regularly – that is, at least twice a week.”
The mistake too many adult exercisers make, according to Croner, is spending all their time on cardiovascular equipment such as stationary bikes, treadmills, and elliptical riders. “Those are fine,” he said, “but you need to strength train, too. We lose so much muscle mass, aggressively, as we get older (up to 3% per year according to the WebMD story). With strength training, we are mimicking our everyday activities – how to squat, how to balance.”
The WebMD story puts it bluntly, reporting, “Sarcopenia has been linked to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. It may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke,and take years off your life. It also jeopardizes your freedom to live on your own, not to mention traveling, spending time with grandkids, or doing so many of the things that make older adulthood joyful and fulfilling.”
Interviewed in the WebMD article, Dr. Brandon Grubbs of the Positive Aging Consortium at Middle Tennessee State University said, “Physical frailty is intertwined with sarcopenia. (Strength training) can extend one’s ability to remain living independently and reduce the risk of falls and fractures. It’s also good for one’s psychological well-being.”
And, more specifically, cognitive well-being.
A 2020 study in NeuroImage: Clinical found that six months of resistance training improved neurocognitive performance among those with mild cognitive impairment, which lasted for another 12 months after the strength training sessions ended. MRI studies of brain structures susceptible to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease showed they were protected from further atrophy during the same time period.
These results were not isolated, as multiple studies have demonstrated the benefits of regular exercise to brain health, regardless of age.
So, where does one start? Croner admitted that someone who has never picked up a dumbbell may be intimidated entering a fitness facility for the first time. “I would have them start by just walking first,” he said. Then, once cleared by their family physician, they should probably get some professional advice from a personal trainer, at least to start.
This WebMD article offers a do-it-yourself program from Dr. Grubbs which may be found here.
For the many older adults with a diagnosed physical malady holding them back, the WebMD story notes that physical therapy ordered by a physician is usually covered by Medicare. As discharge from rehabilitation approaches, your therapist will guide you regarding what is safe for you next.
John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.