To investigate that idea, he and his co-authors recruited 29 healthy, older men and women. The study consisted of two groups. The “younger old” included 17 people between the ages of 65 and 75. Participants in the “older old” group were at least 85. All lived independently and had no debilitating illnesses.
None had regularly weight trained before.
Growing stronger at any age
The researchers measured everyone’s current strength and muscle mass and then introduced them to weight training, with a basic full-body resistance routine using gym machines such as the lat pulldown and leg extension. The volunteers lifted three times a week for 12 weeks, in supervised sessions, using weights set to as much as 80 per cent of their full strength.
This program is more intense than some people might expect older people to tolerate. But the volunteers “loved participating in this intervention,” says Gabriel Nasri Marzuca-Nassr, an associate professor at the University of La Frontera in Chile, who led the new study. Attendance was high, injuries rare.
And both the “younger old” and “older old” groups responded powerfully to the exercise, surprising the researchers somewhat. Before the study started, Marzuca-Nassr says, he and his co-authors had expected the oldest men and women to gain strength and mass, but to a lesser extent than among the 65- to 75-year-olds.
However, after three months, the people aged 85 and up had packed on more strength and mass, in relative terms, than the younger group, adding an average of 11 per cent to muscle mass and 46 per cent to strength, versus 10 per cent more muscle and 38 per cent more strength among the younger volunteers.
The oldest men and women also improved their scores on a test of their ability to rise from a chair and move around by about 13 per cent, versus 8 per cent in the younger of the groups.
The oldest group’s greater relative gains were due, in part, the researchers think, to their having had an extra decade of declining muscle size and strength, compared to the younger lifters. They started from a lower baseline.
Never too late to lift
The results persuasively show that “it’s never too late to start training,” says Michael Roberts, a professor of kinesiology at Auburn University in Alabama, who has extensively studied resistance exercise.
The oldest group’s improved mobility was especially encouraging, he adds, because “loss of physical function is ultimately what defines frailty”.
The results have caveats. The study was small and lasted only for three months. Plus, the training was supervised, with people’s lifting form and loads monitored and adjusted as needed, a level of attention that could be difficult to replicate for ordinary people.
The study also is not meant to give any of us carte blanche to skip weight training now, in anticipation of starting in retirement. “It’s better to start at an earlier age,” Marzuca-Nassr says, “and continue throughout life.”
Perhaps most important, the older men and women who joined the study were healthy for their ages, with few glaring physical limitations. It may be unrealistic for some older people with serious illnesses or disabilities to begin lifting.
If you’re worried about your readiness for weight training, Marzuca-Nassr says, talk with your doctor.
Anyone past about age 60 who’s interested in starting a new lifting or other exercise routine should probably check first with their doctor and then seek out training programs at a gym or community centre specifically designed for older people. The costs often are covered by Medicare or other insurance.
The study’s key takeaway, though, is that there seems to be no age limit or hard stop on our bodies’ ability to adapt and improve, says study co-author van Loon. “You are never too old to start exercising.”
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