Updated: Mar 6, 2019
The antidote for issues that attack those aged 50 and older -- joint stiffness, sore backs, sleep troubles -- may very well be pumping iron. Yes, strength training later in life has many benefits. As men and women age, their muscle fibers shrink in number and in size, contributing to a loss of strength, balance, and coordination. Remarkably, people can experience some of these declines as early as their 40s. Genetics, diet, smoking, alcohol use and, especially, lack of physical activity, may all contribute to this decline. But the good news is that resistance exercise can reverse much of this decline and increase the size of shrunken muscle fibers.
While most older adults are aware they need regular aerobic exercise like walking, swimming, or running to strengthen their heart and lungs and tone their bodies, many do not do any form of weight or resistance training. More and more research is finding that it is, in fact, the only type of exercise that can substantially slow, and even reverse, the declines in muscle mass, bone density, and strength that were once considered unavoidable parts of aging.
As a measure of its importance in the lives of people over 50, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) now has fitness guidelines specific to weight training for folks in that age group. The advice: resistance training exercises should be performed 2 to 3 times a week to work major muscle groups including arms, legs and the core. The goal: lift a weight that's heavy enough to achieve 10 to 15 repetitions per session before muscles become fatigued. ACSM recommends both strength training and aerobic activity on a regular basis; 20 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity is advised 3 to 5 days a week and weight training should be done for 20 to 30 minutes 2 to 3 times a week.
Want more evidence of the benefits of strength training later in life? Weight training can increase bone mass, lowering the risk of developing osteoporosis and fractures. By adding muscle, and thereby adding more weight to the skeleton, the bones are stimulated to strengthen and grow. Evidence also shows that strength training for this age group improves sleep and moods of mildly to moderately depressed individuals.