For many older adults, age-related mobility limitations are a lamentable fact of life. Studies have shown that about 30% of people over the age of 70 have trouble walking, getting up out of a chair or climbing stairs. And, according to the National Institute on Aging, mobility limitations are also linked to higher rates of falls, chronic disease, nursing home admission and mortality.

Loss of mobility as we grow older is more preventable than previously thought, and even more surprisingly, it can be reversed. The secret, it turns out, is a regimen of strength and resistance training. 

New Studies

In his book, The Physiology of Resistance Training, author and exercise researcher Tommy Lundberg says the new findings are significant. “It shows that healthy older people can certainly respond to resistance training, that their muscles are still plastic,” he said in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

Lundberg was referring to a 2023 study authored by researcher Luc van Loon, a professor of physiology of exercise and nutrition at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Researchers studied a group of “younger old” people (between the ages of 65 and 75), and “older old” people (85 and up) who were healthy but had never regularly weight trained before. They measured their baseline strength and muscle mass, and then introduced them to weight training, with a basic full-body resistance routine using gym equipment. The volunteers lifted three times a week for three months in supervised sessions using weights set to as much as 80% of their full strength. Both groups gained significant strength and muscle mass (the “older olds” added an average of 11% muscle mass and 46% strength, versus the younger volunteers, who added 10% more muscle and 38% more strength). Somewhat surprised by the results, researchers concluded that the older group gained more relative strength and muscle mass because their baseline was lower to begin with.

In other words: It’s never too late to start training.

Why Strength Training?

Losing our physical abilities as we get older is largely due to sarcopenia, or the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging found that after the age of 35, muscle power and performance undergo a slow and linear decline, which speeds up after age 65 for women and 70 for men. The only way to slow this decline is to combat it with regular exercise, and resistance training is just what the doctor orders.

Scientist Roger A. Fielding, Ph.D., researches how different types of muscle training exercises benefit older adults — even those with moderate mobility limitations. He has found that a combination of walking and resistance training is the best regimen for preventing sarcopenia. “When you do resistance or strength training, very important chains of molecules that relay signals between cells are affected, and these changes linger in the body for hours after exercise, building up a cumulative, positive effect,” he said. “Even a low-intensity strength and walking program has substantial benefits.” 

What Is Strength and Resistance Training?

Strength training and resistance training are basically the same thing. Weightlifting, either with machines or free weights, is one type of resistance training. Other types include using medicine balls or resistance bands, or body weight-bearing exercises such as pushups, squats or yoga. Simply put, resistance training requires our muscles to contract to lift a heavy object against the pull of gravity.

Most fitness coaches agree that a functional strength-training regimen would have the following hallmarks:

  • Incorporation of all seven of the natural human movement patterns: push, pull, squat, hinge, lunge, twist, carry
  • Use of a full range of motion
  • Emphasis on unilateral and anti-rotational movements
  • Tailored to prepare the individual for the demands of their daily life

How Do I Start?

If you are at all worried about starting a resistance training regimen due to health concerns, consult your doctor first. Then, just start moving. Take a walk, even if you start out in duration or distance. Then, gradually add a strength-training routine for about 30 minutes, two or three times a week. Start slowly with minimal weight, and work with a trainer if possible. 

UCLA Health recommends some effective resistance exercises for beginners, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s YouTube channel is just one of many online resources that demonstrate how to do them. These include:

  • Glute/hip bridge
  • Plank (modified as necessary)
  • Sit-to-stand or squats
  • Seated or standing row
  • Wall or countertop pushups
  • Bicep curls
  • Triceps press down/extension

It’s never too late to start exercising, so good luck and good health.

Top image by DAPA Images, via Canva.com


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