To Fight Muscle Loss As You Age, Add Resistance Training, Study Finds
If you want to fight muscle loss and weight gain related to aging, add resistance training to your routine. That's the finding of a new study that looked at whether resistance training was as effective for women as it is for men and found that both benefit equally from strength training to fight muscle loss, slow metabolism, fat gain, and the onset of disease.
The difference is women are more reluctant to add resistance training and instead choose cardio as their go-to workout of choice, leaving them more vulnerable to age-related muscle loss, slower metabolism, and more fat gain over time. The study authors recommend that women add regular resistance training into their routine to tone up, get stronger and reverse the aging-related muscle loss that can lead to injuries, disease, and worse sleep and immunity. The findings confirm that both men and women should continue to resistance train as they hit 50 and beyond, to fight the effects of aging on the body.
As we age, we lose muscle mass starting at age 30 and replace it with fat, which means that just sitting in our chair or sleeping, our body burns fewer calories since muscle burns more than fat. As our metabolism slows down, we are likely to gain weight even if we don't eat more, an average of 1 pound a year. To help reverse or offset this, maintain a healthy weight and stay strong as we age, most people turn to cardio, but it's important to add strength training, according to exercise physiologists. Unfortunately, most women believe strength training is going to make them bulk up, but women don't have the hormones to make that happen. Instead, women add more cardio exercise such as walking or running, swimming or biking, which may be the obvious solution to burn calories, but if you don't also add in strength training you are likely to get achy joints, injuries, and end up sidelined, according to experts.
This study, from the University of New South Wales, shows that resistance training is better for both men and women equally when trying to build lean muscle mass and keep your body strong, fit, and toned. Contrary to popular belief, both men and women benefit equally from resistance training, when it comes to building healthy muscle, and for maintaining a healthy weight as we age, resistance training works best. “Historically, people tended to believe that men adapted to a greater degree from resistance training compared to women,” says Amanda Hagstrom, senior author of the study, and exercise science lecturer at UNSW Medicine & Health.
The study looked at data from 30 different previous studies to compare the benefits of resistance training on men's and women's bodies. They specifically looked at what happens to people over 50 years of age who did regular resistance training, to assess whether hormonal changes in women had an impact on the results of their resistance training.
"Strength training is very important and beneficial to our health–especially for older people," Dr. Hagstrom adds. "It can help prevent and treat many age-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis."
The study reveals that based on the data, resistance training can offer additional health benefits, beyond just keeping us toned, strong, and maintain a healthy weight. Adding resistance training can help increase stamina, balance, flexibility, and bone density, the study found. Resistance training has also been shown to help improve sleep, a sense of wellbeing and decrease the risk of injury from falls, all of which are especially important as we age.
Lorie Eber a personal trainer and Irvine, California-based wellness coach, adds that resistance training is important, especially as we age. “Every woman I know thinks cardio is the best form of exercise. A lot of women are afraid of resistance training because they don’t want to bulk up” Eber explains. “But women simply do not have the hormones to bulk in that way. Still, this is the number one fear and misconception most women have in my experience.”
“There is an aging phenomenon called sarcopenia” Eber explains, “which is the loss of muscle mass starting at age 30. It continues through the decades so by age 80 you can lose 30% of your muscle mass, which is also going to slow down your metabolism.” Eber says. But strength training or resistance training helps mitigate this muscle loss. “Lean muscle mass at rest burns more calories which allows you to eat more and maintain a healthy weight.”
Here are 3 tips to help you incorporate resistance training into your routine:
Start with plyometric moves that don't require equipment
As with any new exercise habit, keep it simple. You don’t need to buy expensive weights or even bands. “Bodyweight exercises like push-ups are great,” Eber says. When you feel comfortable going back to the gym you can then work on the weight machines since they control the range of movement and reduce the risk of injury as you add more weight over time, Eber explains. Until then, fit in at-home ways to strengthen and tone twice a week.
Stay consistent, since muscles get stronger over time
Being consistent is especially important when it comes to building strong, lean muscles since "muscle fitness dissipates much more quickly than cardio fitness” Ebere explains.
One of the misconceptions about building muscle is that you can only build muscle through lifting heavy weights since you can build muscle by doing reps until fatigue. The other misconception is that you need to work out for a full hour to see benefits. In truth, you can do a few minutes at a time, every day, as long as you rotate through body parts, to allow them to recover in between sessions, such as working on abs on Monday, legs on Tuesday, arms on Wednesday, and back to core strength on Thursday. “You can have fun with it” Eeber tells us “it isn’t necessary to lift heavily to build muscle mass since repetition and exhausting your muscle will build muscle mass just as well. Just 10-12 reps should be enough to start off with”. she adds. Commit to 10 to 20 mins, 3 to 4 times a week, and increase incrementally.
The study found that while men and women benefit equally from resistance training, they can maximize their results by training slightly differently. “Older men might benefit from higher intensity programs to improve their upper and lower body strength,” says Hagstrom. “But older women might benefit from higher overall exercise volumes –that is, more weekly repetitions– to increase their relative and absolute lower body strength.”
Stay accountable to a group
We know that accountability increases the likelihood of sticking with our healthy routines. Having a workout buddy can help keep you showing up, as can joining an online class or group of people who become your community. Studies show that healthy people know other healthy people and you need to find your group. Find a class that combines weights and cardio, Eber suggests. "When you have people working out alongside you and the class is guided, it can be highly motivating,” she adds. Studies show that rowers who workout on indoor ERGs put out more power in a group of others on rowing machines than those who work out alone. Just being in the presence of others who are exerting themselves is enough to make you work harder.
However you want to add resistance training into your week, make it a priority, Eber urges, since it can mean the difference between aging well and not.
If you're looking for easy workouts to build long, lean, and strong muscles, our fitness expert Caroline Diesler takes you through a step-by-step video routine so you can follow along in the comfort of your own home.
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For more exercise videos, try a workout with Berto Calkins, our NYC-based trainer who focuses on strength training for arms, legs, abs, and total body.