Wednesday 29 August 2012

Strength Training for the 50+ Crowd

Dave Drapper at over 60!
Unfortunately, the people who are most interested in strength training are the ones who need it the least. Gyms have tons of young people slaving away to attain their beach body or improve sport performance. However, there are often a smaller handful of wise 50+’ers who realize they need resistance training more than ever!

From a health perspective, the importance of resistance training increases with age.
Unfortunately, most people in the 50+ age bracket do the opposite. They believe that they are getting old and should take it easy. However, the results of “taking it easy” accelerate the aging progress and increase “age-related” issues. Now is the time to strength train and here is why:

Fight creeping obesity
Starting sometime in the 20’s, the average person will gain around 1lb of fat per year and lose 0.5lbs of muscle. This is called creeping obesity because the scale weight changes are so subtle. Most people do not  need be too concerned about a net weight gain of 0.5lbs per year. Even 5lbs per decade seems pretty good. However, in the course of 3 decades if you are an average person, you could have gained as much as 30lbs of harmful fat and lost 15lbs of fat-burning, life-giving muscle.

What causes this? Sure, poor nutrition is largely to blame. When young, many people develop bad eating habits that come back to bite them when they are older. Many people also become progressively less active. This not only reduces caloric expenditure, but also results in muscle loss which further decreases your metabolism.

Building lean muscle
Most people think of muscle mass as something only important for beach muscles and football. Big mistake! In his excellent DVD, Dan John: Intervention, Course Correction for the Athlete and Tainer, Dan John explains that the importance of building muscle increases exponentially as we age. The older you are, the harder it is to keep lean muscle on you and the harder you should be trying to do so.

The older you get, the more important it is to fight hard to keep muscle on your body. Lean muscle keeps your metabolism up and your waist size down. Lean muscle protects you if you fall. Lean muscle means functional independence. Lean muscle is life to your body!

Positive hormonal changes
I have often told my university students that at 18 years old, they are basically on steroids (i.e. they are at their natural hormonal peak). Then, I try as positively as possible to tell them that it is all downhill from there. I’m sorry that sounds so depressing. If you are in the 50+ crowd, you are moving ever faster and farther away from your natural hormonal peak. It is no wonder that anti-aging clinic are popping up everywhere and more 50+’ers are popping bodybuilding drugs to look and feel young again. While I’m not here to judge anyone, I will offer a more natural alternative – strength training. One of the greatest benefits to strength training is the positive hormonal changes that it causes in the body. It forces your body to release hormones that build muscle, burn fat and even improve sexual function.

A while back I read an excellent article by Dr. Jonathon Sullivan, MD, PhD. In it, he explained that our cells don’t just die on their own. They usually decide to die with a process called apoptosis. The growth factors that are stimulated as a result of strength training supress apoptosis. They give the cells a reason to live! For more information on this, check Dr. Sullivan’s entire article entitled Barbell Training is Big Medicine.

Bone density
While bone density loss is a natural part of the aging process, like muscles, we often accelerate this with lifestyle choices. In addition to a diet, strength training is very helpful for bone density. Strength training stresses the bones and tells the body that the bones need to be stronger. This reduces the risks of osteoporosis and fractures.

Extend your life expectancy
Back in 2005, the Journal of Strength & Conditioning published an excellent literature review (see full reference at the bottom) that investigated the connection between strength and mortality. As a quick summary, mortality research shows that the stronger live longer. Research has shown that this is true even if you statistically remove the factor of aerobic fitness. Research also showed that it is healthier to be overweight and strong than underweight and weak. If you get your strength levels up to a moderate level and keep them there, you signifincantly decrease your risk of early death.

Maximize the healthy years
We can divide life up into 3 phases:
  1. The youth years: during this phase of life, your body naturally gets bigger and stronger because you are still growing. Even if you make bad choices, you usually don’t pay for it – yet. 
  2. The “healthy” adult years: these are the years where you have minimal health problems and life can proceed normally. 
  3. The unhealthy years: this is time when your health is very poor and things are rough. This time is determined by the choices you made in the previous two phases. If you eat well, rest well, adopt healthy lifestyle habits and strength train, this phase of life can end up being very, very short. As a result, most of your adult life is spend in the “healthy years phase”. 
The Application:
  • It is important to remember that there is no typical 50+’er. Some people in this age bracket are in amazing shape while others are far from healthy. There is no one-program-works-for-all option here. Therefore, seek individual assistance from a qualified and experienced trainer. 
  • Get a check-up and medical clearance from your doctor. 
  • The older we get the more we have that has and can go wrong with the body. As wonderful as strength training is, it can be harmful if done incorrectly or inappropriately. Some medical conditions require a very different approach to training. Other times, certain issues have to be dealt with prior to engaging in a more regular training program.  
  • Master good form on appropriate exercises for your body
  • Start too light and progress slowly while maintaining good form

Willardson, JM., &Tudor-Locke, C. Survival of the Strongest: A Brief Review Examining the Association Between Muscular Fitness and Mortality. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 27(3):80-85, June 2005.

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