Ester Marsh column: Aging and lifting weights

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 26, 2022

Even though I am considered a spring chicken (at 55) for our older generation and “old” for our younger generation, we all feel the effects of aging.

Studies show that after age 40, most people lose about 1% of their muscle mass each year. (When not lifting weights)

The obvious effect is decreasing strength. Fatigue sets in faster, and it is harder to do the things you once did. When you are weaker, walking and other activities are more difficult to do, which may result in you doing things it less often. That, in turn, may cause balance difficulties and an increased risk of falling. That’s where the term, “When you don’t use it, you lose it” comes from.

Fortunately, studies have also shown that building muscle can stop all of these effects or even reverse them. That is true no matter how old you are or what kind of shape you are in. This includes the ability to build your body back up to full and strong muscles.

When you google strength training for older population, the following definition comes up: “In multiple experiments, older people who start to lift weights typically gain muscle mass and strength, as well as better mobility, mental sharpness and metabolic health.” In my experience in fitness and almost 25 years with the YMCA, I can absolutely confirm this.

Many studies have shown that nursing home residents with an average age of 87 who started a weightlifting program tripled their muscle strength after only 10 weeks of weightlifting and stair climbing. They also increased the size of their muscles by about 10%. Some regained the ability to walk without canes and to perform tasks without assistance.

“The older and more frail a person is, the more important exercise becomes.” Weightlifting, according many studies, is one of the most important activities that older adults should pursue to stay healthy. In fact, out of all age groups, older adults may benefit most from the practice. It is not only going to give you back the muscles you are losing or have lost, it could possibly increase your mobility and make you less dependent on others. For the older population, the benefits from weight lifting outweigh the need for the “six pack abs.”

The American College of Sports Medicine’s fitness guidelines for older adults recommends that adults age 50 and older work out with weights two or three times a week (non-consecutive days). The National Institute of Aging also recommends weightlifting and the continuance of aerobic activity. Lots of older adults think that weight lifting is for those who are already physically fit. That is not the case — you are never too old or too out of shape to start. You do want to talk to your doctor before you start. Lots of times, older adults have existing health conditions.

More tips and questions you should ask are:

• Use experienced and trained staff.

• Is the equipment easy to use?

• Are there programs/classes available for the older adults?

• How is the atmosphere? (How does it feel to you?)

• How accessible are the staff members?

• Are there other older adults working out there?

So, start your weight lifting program (after you talk to your doctor) and get more than just your muscles back in shape!

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