For many, the thought of resistance training conjures images of iron playgrounds full of half-naked guys and gals, covered in sweat and tattoos, grunting through exercises whilst music blares down from the speakers above.
And to be honest… this is still the case in many gyms, but hey, each to their own.
The problem with this traditional image is that does nothing to encourage older adults, the population group that would benefit the most from resistance training, to join a gym and start engaging in one of the activities that confer the most health benefits.
As we age, the loss of muscle mass and strength (known as sarcopenia & dynapenia) carries with it a host of negative health impacts, from loss of physical function to reduced metabolic function.
Here are 5 reasons why resistance training is critical to healthy ageing.
Probably the most commonly exalted benefit of resistance training is the impact it has on our physical function. Just as the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength impairs our ability to perform tasks of daily living, maintaining our strength helps us maintain our physical function.
Resistance training uses and stresses our muscles so that they continue to respond effectively to the demands we place on them
Our muscular system is an important factor in the regulation of our hormonal signalling system.
When we contract our muscles and use them under heavy loads, such as with resistance training, they release a cascade of molecules (known as myokines) that signal the body to perform various actions and improve its internal processes. This helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
As an example, resistance training releases myokines that are responsible for signalling an increase in testosterone levels in both men and women. Testosterone has been proven to have positive effects on things like muscle function, bone density, and cognitive health.
Resistance training, and exercise in general, play an important role in effective lymphatic return. Our lymphatic system acts to support immune function, maintain fluid levels, and remove cellular waste products.
Regular resistance training is one way that we can keep our muscles and bodies moving, which in turn acts as a pump to keep the lymphatic system functioning optimally.
In Australia, close to 20 per cent of older adults have type 2 diabetes. This is essentially a disease that we don’t need to have. Low levels of activity and muscle mass with high levels of fat mass and increased sedentary lifestyles in older adults cause havoc with our blood sugar and metabolic health.
Skeletal muscle is a highly metabolic tissue, which amongst many other functions, is a primary site for glucose uptake and storage.
Resistance training is critical to maintaining muscle mass and supporting metabolic health as we age. In fact, many studies show that if you have adequate muscle mass and are overweight, you can still reduce your risk of chronic disease.
When we start to lose our muscle mass and strength, we can fall into a cycle of behaviours that not only have a negative impact on our physical health but also our mental health.
The loss of muscle function coincides with a loss in motor control and coordination, which causes us to lose confidence in our ability to perform certain activities, which further promotes the reduction in physical function and so on a so forth.
In my over 50s gym, I have seen some amazing physical transformations over the years as members have increased their strength and improved their physical health. Sometimes this takes a long time and sometimes it happens more rapidly.
However, the one thing that I see with every member within a few weeks of strength training is an increase in confidence in their physical ability. This leads to greater engagement in physical activity outside of the gym, which further improves their health, and the cycle starts to rotate in the opposite direction.
Of all the benefits of resistance training, this may be the greatest for the effect it has on everything else.
Considering the amount of research that supports resistance training as we age and the shift in many clinical settings from medical prescriptions to exercise prescriptions, it is no longer a case of whether you should be doing resistance training, but more a case of how often.
The old school gyms still exist and have a role to play but hopefully, they won’t be the dominant thought bubble when resistance training is prescribed to the next generation of older adults.
There are many more gyms, like mine, that are starting to cater to older bodies and a rising number of boutique services that ensure the options for engagement in resistance training are varied and able to meet everyone’s needs and wants.
All you have to do is find one that suits you and stick to it.
Your body and mind will thank you.