by Ron Zacker, RD, CDE
As we age, we tend to get heavier, weaker, slower and more prone to injury, disability and chronic disease. This decline in health has traditionally been viewed as one of the inevitable consequences of aging. However, many of the changes that we experience as we get older may not be attributed to aging itself.
Instead, these changes are likely caused by the loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia) that typically accompanies aging. Lucky for us, behaviors that we are in control of can halt or reverse sarcopenia.
Your level of muscle mass and body-fat appears to be the result of your total level of physical activity, not your age. There is subsequently no reason that we have to suffer from many of the undesirable, “inevitable consequences” of aging.
Exercise-The Fountain of Youth
When most people think of exercise they think of aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, rowing and dancing. Aerobic exercises have been proven to significantly reduce your risk of developing both macrovascular and microvascular complications associated with diabetes. Aerobic exercise also improves insulin sensitivity, which is fundamental in the management of type 2 diabetes.
As good as it is, however, aerobic exercise will not prevent the age-related loss of skeletal muscle mass. Resistance exercise is needed to halt this.
What Is Resistance Exercise?
Lifting weights is the most common form of resistance exercise. This type of exercise involves the use of progressive resistance to increase one’s ability to exert or resist force. The resistance can come from free weights, weight machines, elastic tubing or even your own body weight.
Resistance exercise works your muscles at loads greater than what they are accustomed to. When this happens, your muscles adapt by getting stronger and bigger.
It is now widely accepted that resistance training should be included as an important part of any overall fitness program. For those wishing to prevent or reverse muscle loss, strength training is imperative. Adults who do not incorporate resistance exercise lose between five and seven pounds of muscle every decade.
What’s So Good About Muscle?
The ubiquitous struggle to lose weight can be aided by more muscle. Skeletal muscle will increase your body’s energy requirements. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body will burn.
Any attempt at weight loss without concurrently performing resistance exercise will result in the loss of skeletal muscle. This is akin to killing the golden goose. You become prone to yo-yo weight rebound. When you do rebound, you’ll have less muscle and more fat. Having less muscle means your body now burns fewer calories. Dieting without resistance exercise is a vicious, futile cycle.
The opposite, however, can also occur. Bodybuilders and strength athletes, despite having low levels of body-fat, require a tremendous amount of calories (fuel) to maintain their superior muscle mass. Even when they’re resting or sleeping, their bodies continually consume more calories than those of us do with less muscle. They are the “gas guzzlers” of the human race.
Chronic dieters and aerobic athletes, on the other hand, get 50 miles to the gallon. It doesn’t take much fuel (calories) to fulfill their energy requirements and maintain their bodies.
Having more muscle becomes a virtuous cycle. This is especially helpful in overcoming insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes. Be a gas-guzzler!
Perhaps an even more compelling reason for improving your muscle size and strength is the carryover effect it will have on your everyday life. Strength training will enhance your ability to carry groceries, climb stairs, and keep up with your children or grandchildren. You will feel better and be able to do more when you are stronger. You can remain independent throughout your life.
Other Benefits of Exercise
Strength training also improves your balance, making you less likely to fall. Also, if you do fall, you will be much less likely to experience a fracture. This is because resistance training will significantly increase your bone density, preventing osteoporosis even in post-menopausal women.
Resistance training has also been demonstrated to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce resting blood pressure, improve flexibility and reduce arthritic and lower back pain.
You do not have to rival Arnold Schwarzenegger and bulk up to 250 pounds. Achieving and maintaining the level of muscle that you possessed in your 20s or 30s would be just fine.
Don’t Slow Down
Do not blindly accept the dogma that you must “slow down” and experience poor health as you age. Exercise can prevent or postpone many health problems and provide you with a better quality of life along the way.
Resistance training is essential, however, and is too often overlooked. Too many people continue to regard strength training as an unfavorable endeavor. Ironically, those who see it in this regard are usually the same individuals who could benefit the most by performing strength training.
The muscles you build and maintain by performing resistance training can help ensure that you will be lean, strong and agile; maintaining your functional capacity and remaining active.