A study looking at how older adults exercise finds that weakness plays a central role, which means strength training may be a fountain of youth.
- Researchers found that it may be weakness, not slower muscle contractile properties, that can create mobility limitations in older people.
- This is actually good news, since it means building strength could have a notable impact on function and capability, thus improving daily activities and contributing to healthy aging.
- Reduced strength and power are likely the result of reduced activity, not age-related limitations.
With age comes a natural decline in mobility, and considering you lose between 3 to 8 percent of muscle mass per decade after 30, that’s just an inevitable part of getting older, right? A new study says: Not so fast.
While it’s true that even healthy people older than 65 have some decrease in performance on mobility tests, and age-related muscle loss is inevitable, that doesn’t mean your muscles are down for the count.
Research published in PLOS ONE looked at 40 participants, with half older than 65 and the other half in their 20s, who all were active to some degree. To assess muscle strength and power, they performed knee extension exercises, vertical jumps, squats, lunges, and jumping jacks. They also did a timed “up-and-go,” which involves getting up from a chair as quickly as possible, which is often used to determine mobility and function in older adults.
The result was that the older participants showed lower power-generating capacity than younger ones, but the most notable aspect of the study is why. It wasn’t because of differences in the contractile properties of the muscles; it was because the older participants lacked power-generating capacity.
In other words, the culprit was weakness, not muscle function. Researchers noted the outcome means muscle-strengthening exercise or interventions could be used to improve daily life and contribute to healthy aging, especially if power is below a critical threshold.
Regularly performing tasks that challenge strength levels—or using Tonal, which can gradually increase resistance in a controlled way—can be key for maintaining and recovering strength as you age, says Rocky Snyder, CSCS, author of Return to Center: Strength Training to Realign the Body, Recover from Pain, and Achieve Optimal Performance.
“Unfortunately, when the body reduces its activity level, the aging process accelerates,” he notes. “Muscle loss, reductions in strength and power, and diminished speed are all products of reduced activity, more so than aging itself. If it were merely the aging process that brought a reduction in physical capability, we would not see active septuagenarians and octogenarians competing in marathons, for example.”
Building strength as you age also allows you to retain a crucial capability: jumping. In the recent study, older adults had less power than younger people when it came to those vertical jumps, and that was likely due to more weakness overall. But being able to keep getting those feet off the ground isn’t just good for your muscles, it’s also essential for bone density and joint health, according to Belinda Beck, Ph.D., researcher and owner of The Bone Clinic in Australia.
“We know that bone only responds to high-intensity activity, which is why resistance and impact training is so important as you get older,” she says. “There’s a tendency to treat people over age 60 as increasingly frail, and that they need some kind of gentle approach to exercise. They’re advised to get in a pool, for example. But that’s not [always] what they need.”
Doing a high-intensity workout once or twice a week that has enough resistance to be meaningful, and having some form of impact training, can go a long way toward improving strength, says Beck. As a result, that can boost function and mobility—both incredibly important for healthy aging and enjoyment of life.