Strength & Conditioning
Why strength training?
Research has shown that strengthening exercises are both safe and effective for women and men of all ages, including those who are not in perfect health. In fact, people with health concerns—including heart disease or arthritis—often benefit the most from an exercise program that includes lifting weights a few times each week.
Strength training, particularly in conjunction with regular aerobic exercise, can also have a profound impact on a person’s mental and emotional health.
Benefits of Strength Training
There are numerous benefits to strength training regularly, particularly as you grow older. It can be very powerful in reducing the signs and symptoms of numerous diseases and chronic conditions, among them:
- back pain
Tufts University recently completed a strength-training program with older men and women with moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis. The results of this sixteen-week program showed that strength training decreased pain by 43%, increased muscle strength and general physical performance, improved the clinical signs and symptoms of the disease, and decreased disability. The effectiveness of strength training to ease the pain of osteoarthritis was just as potent, if not more potent, as medications. Similar effects of strength training have been seen in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
Restoration of Balance and Reduction of Falls
As people age, poor balance and flexibility contribute to falls and broken bones. These fractures can result in significant disability and, in some cases, fatal complications. Strengthening exercises, when done properly and through the full range of motion, increase a person’s flexibility and balance, which decrease the likelihood and severity of falls. One study in New Zealand in women 80 years of age and older showed a 40% reduction in falls with simple strength and balance training.
Strengthening of Bone
Post-menopausal women can lose 1-2% of their bone mass annually. Results from a study conducted at Tufts University, which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994, showed that strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk for fractures among women aged 50-70.
Proper Weight Maintenance
Strength training is crucial to weight control, because individuals who have more muscle mass have a higher metabolic rate. Muscle is active tissue that consumes calories while stored fat uses very little energy. Strength training can provide up to a 15% increase in metabolic rate, which is enormously helpful for weight loss and long-term weight control.
Improved Glucose Control
More than 14 million Americans have type II diabetes—a staggering three-hundred percent increase over the past forty years—and the numbers are steadily climbing. In addition to being at greater risk for heart and renal disease, diabetes is also the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Fortunately, studies now show that lifestyle changes such as strength training have a profound impact on helping older adults manage their diabetes. In a recent study of Hispanic men and women, 16 weeks of strength training produced dramatic improvements in glucose control that are comparable to taking diabetes medication. Additionally, the study volunteers were stronger, gained muscle, lost body fat, had less depression, and felt much more self-confident.
Healthy State of Mind
Strength training provides similar improvements in depression as anti-depressant medications. Currently, it is not known if this is because people feel better when they are stronger or if strength training produces a helpful biochemical change in the brain. It is most likely a combination of the two. When older adults participate in strength training programs, their self-confidence and self-esteem improve, which has a strong impact on their overall quality of life.
People who exercise regularly enjoy improved sleep quality. They fall asleep more quickly, sleep more deeply, awaken less often, and sleep longer. As with depression, the sleep benefits obtained as a result of strength training are comparable to treatment with medication but without the side effects or the expense.
Healthy Heart Tissue
Strength training is important for cardiac health because heart disease risk is lower when the body is leaner. One study found that cardiac patients gained not only strength and flexibility but also aerobic capacity when they did strength training three times a week as part of their rehabilitation program. This and other studies have prompted the American Heart Association to recommend strength training as a way to reduce risk of heart disease and as a therapy for patients in cardiac rehabilitation programs.
Research and Background About Strength Training
Scientific research has shown that exercise can slow the physiological aging clock. While aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, or swimming, has many excellent health benefits—it maintains the heart and lungs and increases cardiovascular fitness and endurance—it does not make your muscles strong. Strength training does. Studies have shown that lifting weights two or three times a week increases strength by building muscle mass and bone density.
One 12-month study conducted on postmenopausal women at Tufts University demonstrated 1% gains in hip and spine bone density, 75% increases in strength and 13% increases in dynamic balance with just two days per week of progressive strength training. The control group had losses in bone, strength, and balance. Strength training programs can also have a profound effect on reducing risk for falls, which translates to fewer fractures.
Strength & Longevity
Fitness trends come and go, but weight training in particular never seems to come into style. Part of the problem is that most people associate it with bodybuilding culture, and women in particular are reluctant to join the guys at the back of the gym.
But as the latest studies show, strength is a key factor in longevity and an extended healthy life. And in fact, resistance training may be the single most important thing you can add to your fitness regimen. Here’s how getting stronger will make you harder to kill.
Gradual muscle decline
Simply put, we get physically weaker as we get older. Most people tend to reach the apex of their physical strength during their 20s and 30s, and it gradually declines from there. Exceptions to this rule exist, however, including genetic outliers and people who begin their resistance training later in life.
But once our strength starts to go, so too do other things. For most people, extreme declines in strength tend to happen in their 80s and 90s. Frailty as a condition results in lower levels of physical activity, decreased muscle strength, increased fatigue, slower walking speed, and unwanted weight loss. It’s also associated with adverse health outcomes, an increased dependency on others, decreased mobility, disability, institutionalization — and even mortality. Weaker elderly people also tend to fall more frequently and have greater difficulty standing from sitting or lying positions.
Gerontologists place the blame on our defective mitochondria — the powerhouses of our cells. As we age, our mitochondria start to degrade, resulting in weaker cells and muscle fibres. We experience this as decreased levels of endurance, strength, and function.
Another fundamental problem of aging is our decreased production of telomerase. This is a crucial enzyme that maintains and repairs the little caps on the ends of our chromosomes. When we can’t produce enough telomerase, our genetic integrity is compromised, and so too is cellular division. Chromosomal degradation is to is the human body what rust is to a car.
Our testosterone production also decreases as we get older (which is a natural anabolic steroid), resulting in a decrease in muscle and bone mass.
Muscular strength and longevity
As a consequence of all this, muscular weakness is indelibly tied to not just our quality of life, but our life expectancy as well. And the science proves this.
Two recent studies published in the British Medical Journal revealed that muscular strength is a remarkably strong predictor of mortality — even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other health factors.
This conclusion was reached after an analysis of over 30 studies that recorded physical attributes like bench press strength, grip strength, walking speed, chair rising speed, and standing balance. What the researchers found was that poor performance on any of the tests was associated with higher all-cause mortality — anywhere from a 1.67 to a threefold increase in the likelihood of earlier mortality (the study primarily looked at people over the age of 70 — though five looked at people under 60; but across all ages, poor physical performance was associated with increased mortality).
Now, here’s the good news: To a non-trivial degree, and despite the inexorable effects of aging, physical strength is an attribute we can control. As the science is increasingly showing, resistance training can literally add years to your life — and the earlier you get to it, the better.
Resistance training and rejuvenation
Weight training (and functional exercise in general) offers innumerable positive effects on our physical, cognitive, and emotional well being. Taken as a whole, exercise has been shown to add between six and seven years to a life span — if not more.
As noted earlier, mitochondrial degradation is a primary culprit in dwindling muscle mass. But recent evidence indicates that exercise can slow down this effect. According to Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, resistance training activates a muscle stem cell called a satellite cell. In a physiological process known as ‘gene shifting,’ these new cells cause the mitochondria to rejuvenate. Tarnopolsky claims that after six months of twice weekly strength exercise training, the biochemical, physiological and genetic signature of older muscles are “turned back” by a factor of 15 to 20 years. That’s significant — to say the least.
Studies involving middle-aged athletes indicate that high intensity exercise protects people at the chromosomal level as well. It appears that exercise stimulates the production of telomerase, what allows for the ongoing maintenance of genetic information and cellular integrity. Exercise also triggers the production of antioxidants, which boosts the health of the body in general.
And indeed, other studies are successfully linking athleticism to longevity. A recent analysis published in Deutsches Ärzteblatt International of more than 900,000 athletes (ranging in age from 20 to 79) showed that no significant age-related decline in performance appeared before the age of 55. And revealingly, even beyond that age the decline was surprisingly slow; in the 65 to 69 group, a quarter of the athletes performed above average among the 20 to 54 year-old group.
Essentially, exercise helps the body regenerate itself. This likely explains why older athletes are less susceptible to age-related illnesses than their sedentary counterparts. Moreover, ongoing exercise has been shown to preserve lean tissue, even during rapid and substantial weight loss. It also helps to maintain strength and mobility, which can significantly reduce risk of injury and stave off health problems that would otherwise linger.
Even more remarkable is how resistance training can stave off cognitive decline — what is arguably just as important as physical well being. In a study led by Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia, women between the ages of 70 and 80 who were experiencing mild cognitive impairment were put through 60-minute classes two times per week for 26 weeks. They used a pressurized air system (for resistance) and free weights, and were told to perform various sets of exercises with variable loads. The results were remarkable: Lifting weights improved memory and staved off the effects of dementia. It also improved the seniors’ attention span and ability to resolve conflicts.