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  • Writer's pictureMarc Lalonde

For older adults, strength training becoming more important

A great January 20, 2023 Washington Post piece by Ian McMahan illustrates why pumping iron is not only for bodybuilders but also for older adults looking to retain their quality of life and independence.

A lot of my clients are older adults and I love working with them for all kinds of reasons – not the least of which is they seem to see results the fastest and most dramatically – and as kind of an old soul myself (at times), I relish the opportunity to spend time working with them on strength training.

As my year without sugar continues apace, a client sent me McMahan’s piece, where he cobbled some numbers from a large-scale research project that showed some suprising results for those who thought cardiovascular exercise was the king – or queen – of keeping us young.

In a recent meta-analysis combining 16 studies and data from over 1.5 million subjects, muscle-strengthening activities were associated with almost a 20 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, lung cancer and all-cause mortality, McMahan wrote.

20 percent!!!!

That’s a rather large data pool and sample size. Pretty good indication that strength training – defined as making muscles work against a force (including gravity) – isn’t just about getting pumped up.

In fact, other research has indicated that strength training as we age can and will increase bone density – huge for both maintaining balance and shielding us from fracture when we lose that balance – and wards off cognitive decline into our later years.

Then what’s new here?

McMahan’s article touches on two key points (McMahan's writing bolded):

Perhaps most important for health, studies have found that strength training improves the body’s response to insulin and, therefore, leads to better control of blood sugar after meals — which means a reduced risk of diabetes or insulin resistance, conditions that can harm the heart and cardiovascular system by thickening the heart wall and increasing arterial plaque formation. The new research shows the body is better able to process blood sugar after eating, and it indicates that stimulation of the body’s muscles lead to a better overall level of health.

Also, emerging evidence shows contracting skeletal muscles produce myokines, which are small strings of amino acids existing between muscles and the rest of the body that can help regulate various metabolic processes conducive to better cardiometabolic health, McDonough says. German researchers last spring reported that “by stimulating the skeletal muscle in a certain way, we can make use of this cross talk and improve health.”

That’s a big deal.

It means that weight training isn’t just as important as cardiovascular training – it might be MORE important.

Now, both have their place. In a perfect world, my clients get to have a great daily workout – including flexibility and recovery training – as well as an hour’s brisk walk, thereby fully satisfying what I think to be a complete day of body maintenance.

I mean, we only get one, right?

Might as well look after it. There was a time last fall, where my weight gain made me feel 100 years old, where I felt at times like I was just waiting to die.

That’s no way to live. I promise you.

Movement is medicine for what ails you, and weight training might well be the ultimate medicine.

Plus, it feels AMAZING!

McMahan’s piece continues, citing American federal guidelines, but those are the bare minimum. In my mind, a perfect week of exercise involved 3 to 5 weight training sessions for everyone, but I’m kind of an insane person, it would appear.

The federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends two or more strength-training sessions each week. Ideally, the sessions should include four to six different exercises that use as many muscle groups as possible (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms). For each exercise, complete 10 to 12 repetitions two to three times.

I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. I like to add certain exercises to fill in some of the rest gap – a metabolic resistance workout – with unweighted squats, jumping jacks and the like.

But this piece shows that resistance training is geater than the sum of its parts.

Remember that you are as strong as you want to be and the only way to fail at weight training is to stop showing up. I know that I am strong and and every day I test myself to make sure I can still go out of my comfort zone and know that because I have love in my life -- and it makes me stronger than anything.

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