Take note, strength training could add years to your life

Resistance is far from futile when it comes to ageing says Margaret Jennings. By introducing just a small amount of strength training into your weekly routine you can lengthen your life by several years.

YOU don’t have to become a body builder — flexing your bulging muscles — but lifting weights or doing push-ups twice a week seems to lengthen older people’s lives.

Research based on data taken over 15 years from more than 30,000 adults aged 65 and over, suggests those who did strength training twice weekly, lowered their cause of dying, from any cause, by almost half.

The results of the US study released last month comes as no surprise to Dr Brendan Egan, lecturer in exercise and metabolism at UCD, who says it’s been well established for many years now that resistance training can improve strength, muscle mass and reduce the incidence of falls and fractures, but this is probably the first research to show its value in prolonging life.

And he warns it is not enough for us to do aerobic activity for healthy ageing; just as the study suggests, we should also be incorporating two half-hour resistance training sessions into our weekly exercise routine.

This is not just his personal and professional opinion; the WHO (World Health Organisation) exercise guidelines for older people, outline that “muscle-strengthening activities, involving major muscle groups, should be done on two or more days a week.” 

This is in addition to that other WHO guideline, with which we are more familiar — that older people should be doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, every week.

So just as we are stepping it out diligently and polishing our halos, we now have another ‘to do’ on our exercise list? 

It’s well established that after the age of 30 we lose between 3 and 8 percent of our muscle every decade, but it’s when we get to our mid 50s and over, that the decline become obvious. 

Twisting open those tight jar tops isn’t quite as easy, is it? Or you may be more predisposed to lose your balance or to topple.

Sarcopenia – the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength as a result of ageing, is a silent progression and is now acknowledged as one of the major threats to healthy ageing, says Egan.

“If you lose more muscle than a member of the average population, in that scenario, with the loss of muscle mass and function, it increases your risk of falls and fractures; it reduces your independence and in general sarcopenia is associated with earlier mortality, so in contrast to the study just published that shows strength improves longevity, sarcopenia would have the opposite effect.”

Preliminary data from research Egan is doing, indicates that about 25 per cent of Irish people over 65 are sarcopenic.

So must we invest in expensive gym membership, or rush out to buy dumbbells to do our twice-weekly strength training?

Not at all. Doing press-ups, lunges or squats with the advice of a good physiotherapist can suffice, he says.

Egan is also currently writing up the results of a strength training study he did with volunteers, average age 63: “This was a group-based exercise class for older people only and they used body weight exercises – that is, using their body in different positions, to provide resistance, so it didn’t involve any lifting of weights.

“In our study, after a 12-week intervention, with three training sessions a week, about 45 minutes each, using body weight exercises only, we saw improvements of 1 kg in body mass. 

“So if you think about the fact that we often use one per cent of our muscle mass per year after the age of about 40, that essentially was them putting a decade worth of muscle back on the body, which was quite a striking outcome from a fairly simple exercise intervention.”

Yes but it has to be kept up then?

“Yes, it’s use it or lose it — the body responds very rapidly to training so by increasing strength and improving muscle mass, equally it responds to periods of time when you are inactive, so there have been several studies that have shown loss of muscle mass in short periods of time.

One of the most striking of these is when older adults are subjected to bed rest and this is something that happens maybe when they have a fall or they get the flu or are in hospital. In actual fact they lose muscle mass at a rate of three to six times faster than a younger individual.”

Although we won’t regain the muscle of our youth, by starting now, the goal is to maintain what we have got and to reap the many benefits of doing that.

And just to say, it’s never too late: Studies show that those aged over 85 can also increase their muscle mass in response to 12 weeks of strength based training – but of course, they need to continue to exercise twice a week to maintain that gain.

Aside from the physical routine, it involves mental discipline to apply it.

Manhattan to West Cork: Alice’s Adventures in Ireland, Alice Carey, €14.99

This memoir published by Collins Press, is a great read, exploring Carey’s isolated childhood in New York, as the only child of immigrants from Killarney, and her inextricable link to Ireland, including holidays home as a child and her later return to West Cork to refurbish a ruined farmhouse.

Now in her mid-60s, Alice started her first diary aged 10; this love of recording may explain her perceptive eye and ear and why the simplicity of her narration draws us in.

She acted on Broadway, is a writer for the Huffington Post and, after the age of 60, found new fame when she was photographed on the street for the Advanced Style blog by Ari Seth Cohen.


The surprising secret to ageing well.

Isolation linked to 

heart disease and stroke

Take note, strength training could add years to your life

Every day 300 people are diagnosed with heart disease and stroke in Ireland, and 27 die as a result. 

Now results from recent British research suggest loneliness and isolation raise the risk of both illnesses by about 3% and should be considered as influential as other factors, such as stress. 

Nicole Valtorta, of the department of health sciences at the University of York and her colleagues analysed data from previously published studies that included over 180,000 adults. 

Over 4,600 had suffered heart attacks, angina or died and more than 3,000 had suffered strokes.

The analysis could not prove loneliness and social isolation directly caused heart problems or strokes, say the researchers. 

However previous studies have suggested isolation raises the risk of ill health.


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