Start weight training now to reap benefits in older age, experts say

A man is lifting a heavy weight bar with a smile on his face. He is wearing a blue shirt and he is enjoying himself
Weight training can help to stop muscle loss in older age. (Getty Images)

Weight training, or weight lifting, is often associated with a very specific type of person – typically, someone young and body-conscious who spends hours in the gym. But the reality is that anyone can practise weight training, and there are plenty of benefits for older people.

A new study suggests that lifting heavy weights three times a week around the age of 70 can significantly preserve muscle function in the legs for the road ahead.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that older adults who practised 12 months of heavy resistance training experienced "long-lasting beneficial effects" when it came to their leg strength.

As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass. The decline starts after the age of 30, with muscle mass dropping by approximately 3% to 8% per decade. This increases to around 5% per decade after the age of 60.

Women experience an even more significant and rapid decline in muscle mass during the menopause, as oestrogen levels fall and bone density decreases. This can lead to a higher risk of osteoporosis.

The loss of muscle mass and strength is known as sarcopenia. According to the British Geriatrics Society, it has been linked to several adverse health outcomes, including increased risk of falls, impaired activities of daily living, the need for institutional care, and early death.

Elderly Sweet Woman Exercises With Dumbbells, Embracing Active Lifestyle And Home Workouts�
During menopause, women become more susceptible to muscle loss and bone density loss. (Getty Images)

Weight training, which is also known as resistance training, can go a long way to build up muscle mass and strength that will be crucial in our later years.

Matthew Piff, regional physiotherapy lead at Nuffield Health, tells Yahoo UK: "Studies have shown that even into our 80s we can still build muscle mass with the right kind of exercise.

"It is important that we do resistance type exercises as we age, therefore bodyweight exercises and fixed or free weight exercises can be of significant benefit to our physical health.

"This year’s Healthier Nation Index has found that the top motivator for being active for Brits is wanting to stay fit as we get older. However, we know that 20.36% of over 65s have not dedicated any time to moderate physical activity in the last 12 months.

"It is very important to realise that making an effort to maintain strength as we age is important, and not just accept the fact that we will become weaker."

Inex Griffin, senior health and wellbeing physiologist at Nuffield Health, says there are a number of benefits that can be reaped from weight training, including "improving mental health by relieving stress, improving sleep quality and helping us form a better connection with our own bodies as well as others".

Practising the activity regularly can also:

Maintain or increase muscle mass: Resistance training provides a stimulus for building or maintaining strong muscles, which not only aids our mobility but can also help to protect us against fractures.

Maintain bone density: Resistance training helps by strengthening our muscles, but whilst we are doing this the muscles pull on the bones, stimulating them to maintain or improve their density and strength. [It also] decreases our risk of falls, especially as we age and increases our bone density. So, if those falls were to happen, the risk of fracture would be much lower with evidence showing hip fractures would be less likely.

Heart health: Regular resistance training can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and keep the heart healthy by lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol profile and improving body composition.

Diabetes risk: Regular resistance training can help to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. For those who are already type 2 diabetic, resistance exercise can help to manage blood glucose levels especially when done alongside cardiovascular exercise.

Mobility/Joint pain: Resistance training helps strengthen our muscles and improve bone density in a safe and secure way as we train. This has a knock-on effect when it comes to mobility, fracture risks and the reduction of developing joint pain, which becomes more common as we age.

Personal trainer Rory Wilson emphasises that there are benefits to be had from weight training no matter what age you are. However, he says that the "earlier you start, the better it is for you, just like any skill".

Shot of senior group of people working out together at the gym
People can benefit from weight training at any age. (Getty Images)

For people in their 20s and 30s, when their bodies are at their prime, weight training can help maximise muscle and metabolism, as well as prevent injuries and preserve joint health.

"This is the time to build a robust metabolic engine; muscle tissue burns more calories at rest than fat," he explains. "It’s like investing in a high-yield savings account—except the dividends are in calories burned and impressive physical feats."

Wilson adds: "Weight lifting strengthens not only muscles but also the tendons and ligaments. This enhanced structural support reduces the risk of injuries, both in everyday life and in athletic pursuits. Consider it an insurance policy for your active lifestyle, minus the premium hikes."

As for those in their 40s and 50s, weight training can help keep you fit and counteract the "middle-age spread" by allowing people to maintain a higher metabolic rate.

"Weight-bearing exercises [also] stimulate bone growth, keeping your skeleton as sturdy as a steel framework. Research shows that regular resistance training can help stave off age-related bone loss and reduce fracture risk."

People in their 60s and beyond will benefit from "maintaining muscle mass and strength, which are key to independence", Wilson says.

"It’s not just about being able to open pickle jars without assistance; it’s about retaining the ability to perform daily activities with ease and dignity."

Senior man performing push-ups with the guidance of a personal trainer in a modern gym setting.
Exercises like press-ups, squats and planks can be easily done at home. (Getty Images)

Getting into weight training doesn’t mean buying lots of fancy equipment or joining an expensive gym. However, if you’re a complete beginner, it can be helpful – and safer – to hire a personal trainer or join a group.

You can start incorporating some at-home weight training exercises into your daily routine.

Jon Denoris, founder of Club 51 - Intelligent Fitness, recommends exercises like planks, squares and press-ups to start with.

"You can start by doing a press-up against a wall or on your knees if you can’t press your own weight," he explains. "Modified bodyweight squats are also good, and you can do those from a dining room chair. Variations on planks are a really good strength and endurance exercise for the core and lower back."

However, he advises looking out for community groups led by physiotherapists or personal trainers who can lead you on your weight training journey.

"They would start with things like resistance bands, for example, or rehabilitation tools like medicine balls and softer tools that help in terms of progressing from a lower starting point," he says.

"Those kinds of programmes will also work on things like joint mobility, which can keep knee joints and the spine nice and healthy. Mobility, balance and joint stability are all important by-products of strength training."

Joining a group for exercise has the added benefit of socialising with other people who have the same fitness goals.

"You’re hitting multiple benefits when there’s social cohesion," Denoris says. "There’s research that supports the fact that resistance training is good for cognitive health, and if you’re exercising with a group, you’re also getting the enhanced mental benefit of belonging to a group and being with friends, as well as the physical aspect of it."

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