The average life expectancy in America is about 79.
Some view our 60s and beyond as our “golden years,” while to others, it’s more of a slippery slope.
If you simply sit back and let Father Time take its toll, it can be very difficult to maintain a good quality of life. But if you’re willing to take action, there are ways to fight back and continue living the life you want.
I like to think of training as an older adult as a way to “square the curve.”
Rather than thinking of our physical function in a parabolic format where we hit a peak in early/mid-adulthood and then gradually decline over time, we want to flatten the second half of the curve to prevent our perpetual physical decline.
In layman’s terms, we want to be crushing life as long as possible before we die.
One of the best tools for squaring the curve is strength training.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association recently published a Position Statement in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research on resistance training for older adults (quantified as those individuals above the age of 65 years old).
In this paper, they discuss evidence-based research regarding all aspects of strength training for this population. Here, I’d like to explore the main points of the research to help you better understand strength training for an older population and how to establish a safe and effective plan.
Before diving into the recommendations, why should older adults even be interested in strength training?
Because it’s a proven way to help us fight back against many of the things which lead to an overall reduction in independence and activity participation. It can help reduce our risk of chronic impairments like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It can help us maintain our balance and our mobility as we age, which is crucial for avoiding falls. And, at a time when our body will naturally get weaker without intervention, it helps keep us strong.
According to the New York Times, by their early 40s, many adults are losing muscle mass at a rate of about “5 percent a decade, with the decline often precipitating a long slide toward frailty and dependence.”
As we lose muscle mass and strength, our risk of mortality increases (in fact, grip strength is a strong predictor of life expectancy).
We also experience a decrease in power, which makes tasks like getting out of a chair or climbing a flight of stairs more challenging.
Due to a natural decrease in bone mineral content, our bones also become more fragile with age, increasing our risk of fracture. We also experience a natural decline in certain cognitive abilities, such as memory, learning, executive function and processing speed.
Strength training is a potent weapon against all of these natural, age-related processes.
This chart from the fifth edition of the NSCA’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning drives home the point:
Credit: NSCA and Human Kinetics
A 2016 analysis from the Penn State College of Medicine found that adults over 65 who strength trained at least twice a week had “46 percent lower odds of death for any reason than those who did not” over a 15-year period.
Even after adjusting for demographic variables, health conditions and health behaviors, the effect of strength training on mortality remained significant. After the researchers controlled for physical activity level, “people who reported strength exercises appeared to see a greater mortality benefit than those who reported physical activity alone.”
Unfortunately, even with all of these reasons, less than 10 percent of adults above the age of 75 engage in a strengthening routine.
Strength Training for Older Adults
So, what exactly does the NSCA recommend?
This table includes their general resistance training recommendations for healthy older adults.
Honestly, it’s a pretty standard programming model. What I like about it is the emphasis on power/explosive training. These kinds of motions are crucial for certain functional movements (e.g., climbing stairs, getting out of a low chair), and I think training these sorts of fast, concentric-based movements are essential to maintaining good quality of life.
The authors also provide more specific recommendations in this table for older adults with frailty (defined in the statement as experiencing “decreases in biological functional reserve and resistance to stressors.”) Even these people are candidates for resistance training!
Included within these recommendations are endurance and balance training exercises, which should be a staple in any older adult’s routine.
The statement goes even deeper into further modifications for those with other conditions, including osteoporosis, arthritis, mild cognitive impairment and diabetes, in this table, addressing how to potentially alter/focus exercise prescription for these folks. According to the National Institute on Aging, roughly 85 percent of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, so it’s important to remember that there’s no one universal baseline of “healthiness” a person must meet before they can start strength training.
So, how old is too old to strength train? With the right adjustments, medical screening and program design, you’re never too old to strength train.
Older adults can easily make excuses about why they cannot strength train, but in reality, there’s almost always a solution. If there’s a will, there’s a way.
Now, it’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll be able to do all the same things as the 25-year-olds at your local gym, but that’s perfectly OK. It’s all about “squaring the curve.”
Your Barbell Back Squat may transition to standing up from a chair, and you may need to trade in your chest day for Table Top Push-Ups, but maintaining muscle strength and power is crucial for longevity.
Just about any type of physical activity is good for older adults, but strength training offers some very unique benefits that can increase your odds of a long, happy, healthy life.
Photo Credit: FlamingoImages/iStock