Officially, old age is classed as 65 and above. How do you imagine you’ll be once you reach old age, how do you want it to be? I guess most of you would like to live at least another 20 years, stay strong, be fit, capable and active, travel the world and tick things off your bucket list.
Or are you hoping to be overweight, or feeble, spend most days sitting in an armchair, be unable to perform a lot of everyday activities and be plagued by ill-health, aches and pains? No, of course not.
So, how do you give yourself the best chance of achieving the kind of old age you’re after? In this article, we’ll show you what the research says.
Staying fit isn’t enough
Fitness is great, but it’s not everything. You can stay fit by being active and keeping up the cardiovascular aerobic exercise. But it does very little to preserve muscle mass and strength.
We all lose muscle as we get older; it’s referred to as sarcopenia. Not only that, we lose fast-twitch fibres at a faster rate than slow-twitch fibres. Fast-twitch fibres are capable of generating greater force than slow-twitch fibres. So, it makes sense that we lose strength as we get older. But some people lose strength more readily than others, while others have lifestyles that enable them to attenuate the loss of strength.
‘So what?’, you might say.
Well, if you’re fit but weak, you have a higher chance of dying than your stronger colleagues. Yes, that’s right. There’s a strong inverse relationship between strength and mortality.
Stay strong, live long
Many studies have shown that strength is a good predictor of mortality. In one study, the researchers used grip strength and thigh strength as upper and lower body strength markers. They monitored a large group of older men and women over several years, measuring baseline strength at the start and then deaths during the study period.
Here’s what they found. The chart shows four curves of survival rates for men, one for each measure of grip strength. Those with a measure greater than 50 showed a significantly higher survival rate at the five year point.
I include the reference so you can take a look for yourself at this free article. The charts follow a very similar pattern for women and also for thigh strength.
So, the stronger you are, the higher your chances of living a longer life. We’ve talked before about the importance of muscle mass for longevity. There are multiple factors associated with muscle mass that lessen your chances of dying. But even muscle mass is not as good a predictor as muscle strength.
Why might that be? Researchers haven’t uncovered that one yet. But it’s likely to be due to reduced falls and fractures, healthier body composition, better blood sugar control, stronger heart and healthier physiology.
It’s quality not quantity
How can that be? Surely muscle size and muscle strength are highly correlated? Yes, they are, but it’s possible to have muscle bulk without strength. In this instance, we would say that the quality of the muscle is poor.
How do you gain muscle bulk without quality? By being overweight and sedentary. Muscle mass and fat mass tend to rise and fall together. If you gain fat, you’ll gain muscle. But unless those muscles are active and put to good use, they will be of low quality.
Avoid getting fat to stay strong
There are numerous discussions about the definition of muscle quality and many potential causes of poor quality. But one reason may be muscle steatosis – the infiltration of the muscle architecture with intramuscular and extracellular fat deposits.
Steatosis may be one of the reasons why high body fatness is also associated with low muscle quality. So, despite gaining muscle bulk as you put on weight, that muscle can be of low quality, and weak, if muscle steatosis has occurred.
It’s been observed that the correlation between muscle mass and strength decreases with age. That’s due to a loss of muscle quality, leading to a loss of strength. However, of the two measures, strength and mass, muscle strength remains a better predictor of mortality than muscle mass.
Lift long and prosper
So how do you combat this age-related decline in muscle quality and strength? By weight training, of course! Many studies have shown the benefits f weight training for the elderly. In fact, the potential for gains in strength and improvement in health is more significant in the elderly than in the young.
Weight training will improve insulin sensitivity, bone density, function, capability and metabolic regulation. And, ultimately, it improves longevity. So, not only will you achieve improved capability and mobility, leading to a more active life, you’ll be able to enjoy that life for longer.
Significantly, weight training also increases energy requirements due to the raised metabolic rate associated with weight training. This helps to combat body fatness and muscle steatosis, thereby preserving muscle quality and strength, as well as general health.
So, it would be best if you weight trained all your life. If you don’t already, start now and continue into your old age. Please don’t leave it until you’re older, because it gets harder to start the older you get. But, be aware; you can’t merely go through the motions. The same research on the elderly also shows that the intensity of the stimulus determines the extent of the beneficial changes. You have to push your muscles to the max to reap the rewards.
If you’ve never trained with weights before, or you have niggles and pains, then an experienced personal trainer would be a wise investment. You can’t lift weights if you’re injured. And given that posture deterioration and joint wear and tear occur in most people as they age, there’s a high chance you’ll get hurt if you’re pushing yourself, but with poor lifting postures. Learn to lift well; get some coaching.
A loss of muscle mass and, in particular, strength, is associated with an increased risk of mortality as you age. So, if you want to improve your chances of a long and productive life, you should do your best to maintain overall strength.
The best way to stay strong as you get older is to lift weights, and lift them well with sufficient intensity. But, as your posture deteriorates and your joints wear down, lifting weight carries greater injury risk. Get some coaching so you can lift safely for the rest of your life.