There is absolutely no doubt that as we get older we need to maintain our strength if we want to ensure that we can lead a long, happy, independent life.
With the average life expectancy going up there’s a very strong chance that we could live well into our 90s and beyond, but the idea of living longer without being able to remain independent is a frightening thought.
As we age our muscles weaken and our lean mass reduces, this is known as sarcopenia. Good nutrition and regular exercise, including strengthening exercise and moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, can help to stave off the effects of old age.
Many people over 50 are aware of the health benefits of walking and recognise the current guidelines of aiming to include 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. However, including strength training alongside is key to making sure that as we age we maintain as much muscle mass and strength as possible.
The physiological improvements gained through combining moderate aerobic activity with a progressive programme of strength training include stronger muscles (a more independent life), improved cardiovascular function (lower risk of disease) and improved mental health (reduced risk of depression, improved self esteem) to name but a few.
The problem for many people wanting to incorporate strength training into their week though, is that they simply don’t know where to start.
They may feel embarrassed about going into a gym or asking for help and direction, especially if the gym is full of bicep wielding twenty-somethings posing for selfies at every turn!
Finding a gym in which you feel comfortable, that caters for older clientele and has trainers who understand and can empathise with the needs of the older client is important.
Seeking out the help of a personal trainer who has experience of strength training with older clients can also be a good investment. You may want to find a trainer who will come to you in your home if the idea of joining a gym doesn’t appeal.
You may be worried that you might end up looking like a body builder or hate the idea of bulging biceps but fear not, that’s really not likely to happen without some serious hard work (and probably the odd pill or two!!)
For most of us we just want to look a bit better and be able to do all the things we need to do without difficulty.
The trick to including strength training to improve your quality of life and your body composition is to use effective, compound moves that target the whole body.
A compound movement is one that uses a number of different muscles across a number of joints at the same time such as squats, deadlifts and bench press.
The alternative is to use an isolation exercise which targets just one muscle across one joint, for example a bicep curl or leg extension.
Compound movements tend to reflect real life movement, or functional movements. Exercises such as squats can ensure that we are able to get up and down from a chair more easily, pick things off the floor when we drop them or climb the stairs with less difficulty.
These are all functional movements that can, if we aren’t prepared, become debilitating in older life.
Rather than waiting to reverse the effects of muscle weakness, we need to start preventing the effects as early as possible. In essence, don’t delay, start today!
Compound exercises bring other benefits such as burning a greater number of calories since we are engaging a greater number of muscles.
They are time efficient allowing you to work a number of body parts at the same time and therefore reduce the length of your workout.
Because they utilise many muscles across many joints, they help with coordination, balance and core stability.
Some of the big movements such as squats, lunges, bench press etc can help get your heart pumping and therefore aid cardiovascular health.
But don’t think for one moment that compound exercises are an easy option – they take hard work!
But the benefits are huge.
You get to do more in less time.
You get to see improvements in movements that will have a direct benefit to daily life.
You get to burn more calories; great if you want to lose a few pounds or simply improve appetite.
Aiming to strength train 3-4 times per week is ideal.
A Programme of either 3 x whole body workouts or 4 x upper body/lower body splits works well.
This means that for the whole body you would workout for 3 days each week using a combination of compound exercises that target the upper and lower body as well as the muscles that push and those that pull all in the same workout.
Or if doing upper/lower body splits you would workout 4 times per week, doing 2 sessions focusing on the upper body and alternating with 2 sessions focusing on the lower body.
Push exercises are those that push away from the midline of the body such as bench press, push ups, deadlifts, shoulder press and glute raises.
Pull exercises are those that pull the weigh toward the midline of the body such as pull ups, rows, squats, lunges, lat pull downs.
It is definitely worth paying a professional trainer for a few sessions to make sure that your technique is correct, since compound moves require good form to be safe and effective.
You can look on the REPs website (Register of Exercise Professionals) or CIMSPA (The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity) to find suitably qualified personal trainers in your area.
Bev Thorogood is a PN1 Certified Nutrition Coach and Personal Training with over 20 years in the fitness world. She’s also a wife, mother, grandmother and cheerleader for feeling amazing through midlife and beyond.