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Ester Marsh column: When you don’t use it, you lose it

It’s so good to see people coming back! Many have had their vaccinations and feel more comfortable getting out and about. Unfortunately, many didn’t exercise or did so less than before COVID-19 hit us. And we all know the saying: “When you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Getting older makes you lose muscle mass when you don’t lift any weights. Studies have shown that after the age of 40, most people lose about 1% of their muscle mass each year if they don’t lift any weights. Of course, the obvious effect is losing strength. Fatigue sets in faster, and it is harder to do the things you once were able to do. With weakness, even walking and other activities become more difficult to do, which starts the vicious cycle of not doing them at all. That, in turn, may cause balance difficulties and an increased risk of falling.

Many studies have shown that muscle-building exercises can stop all these effects or even reverse them. It doesn’t matter how old you are! In one study (before pandemic), they found that nursing home residents with an average age of 87 tripled their muscle strength after only 10 weeks of strength training and stair climbing. They also increased the size of the muscle by 10%. Some of them regained the ability to walk without canes and to perform tasks without assistance. I have seen this personally in my many years of being a trainer. The older and more frail a person is, the more important exercise becomes.

Weight lifting, according to studies, is one of the most important activities an older adult should pursue to stay healthy. When you look at all the facts, the older adults improve the most from strength training when you look at all the age groups. The American College of Medicine fitness guidelines for older adults says the following: It is recommended that adults 50 and older work out with weights 2-3 times a week, making sure there is a day in between each muscle group worked. The National Institute of aging also recommends weight lifting and cardio exercise for the older adults (more on cardio, balance and flexibility next week). You are never too old!

You do want to check with your doctor before you start any exercise program and communicate that you would like to start a strength training program. There are certain limitations with some health conditions but I have never heard a doctor say you cannot exercise. Of course, still being in a pandemic has big challenges for many people, especially the ones who can’t get vaccinated and are high risk. What I do hear every day when people come back that they are so surprised how everything is spread apart. We are very fortunate to have a lot of space and we worked very hard to make it safe for everyone. So if, or when, you are ready to start working out and get back what you lost, check the following:

  • Do you feel safe? We follow state mandates which, at this time, say everyone in the facility has to wear a mask, even when working out. And we have cleaning stations and hand sanitizers everywhere. As mentioned above, the equipment is spread apart.
  • Is there experienced and trained staff? Even though we are on skeleton staff, you can make an appointment to get familiar with the equipment with trained and experienced staff.
  • Is the equipment easy to use and easy to adjust?
  • Are there classes and programs available for the older adults? Even though it’s down from before the initial shutdown, we have water and land classes geared toward the older active adults, including some upcoming paint and knitting classes.
  • How is the atmosphere? How does it feel to you?
  • Are there other older adults working out there?

If you have not started a strength training program, start one now, whether it’s at home, the Y or any other fitness facility. And don’t wait until tomorrow because tomorrow is always one day away!

Ester H. Marsh is health and fitness director of the J.F. Hurley Family YMCA.

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