If you thought strength training was only for young people – or only for men – think again.
Strength training can have fantastic benefits for men and women of all ages, and is actually more important as we get older.
Strength training doesn’t necessary mean lifting huge weights or building big muscles. It can do, if that’s what you’re looking for. But it can also involve using lighter weights for a higher number of repetitions, using weights machines at the gym, going to a strength training exercise class, or just doing bodyweight exercises. This means there’s a type of strength training that can work for everyone. And all can be helpful!
Here are some of the specific benefits you can get from strength training.
- Keeping your bones strong
We can naturally start to lose bone density from around age 35 onwards. So, as we get into our 50s and beyond, we have an ever-increasing risk of weak bones and osteoporosis – a condition that affects around three million people in the UK1.
Women in particular can see a dramatic drop in bone density at menopause, because they lose the bone-protecting effects of oestrogen. But men are not exempt and can have osteoporosis too.
Weight-bearing exercise and especially strength training can help stop bone loss – and may even increase bone density, even after menopause in women2. This is because the action of muscles pulling on bones stimulates our bones to become stronger.
- Reducing risk of falls and injury / maintaining independence in old age
We naturally lose muscle mass and strength from our 30s onwards, too.
But why should this be a problem?
Well, we don’t only need good muscle strength to lift heavy things. We also need it to keep our body stable and to avoid falling over or getting injured. Falls can have especially serious consequences in older people, even causing permanent disability. And we need muscle strength to help us move as we want and go about all our daily tasks, whether it’s walking to the shops or getting up from a chair – in other words, being able to look after ourselves.
So, strength training and keeping our muscles strong can help us live long, healthy lives and stay independent into old age.
- Improving body shape and preventing weight gain
Strength training helps to tone all our muscles and keep us looking fit and healthy. And by maintaining muscle strength, we’re also less likely to gain body fat.
- Improving testosterone levels in men
Testosterone naturally starts to drop in men from around age 35 to 40, by around 1 to 3 per cent per year3. And by late 40s or early 50s, men can start to experience symptoms such as erectile dysfunction, low sex drive, weight gain (especially on the belly), fatigue, low mood or depression and poor sleep. This is sometimes known as the ‘male menopause’.
Exercise is a key way to help maintain testosterone levels as men get older. But not all exercise is equal! Strength training with heavy weights has been found to boost testosterone levels in men directly after exercise3. On the other hand, endurance-type exercise such as long-distance running or cycling may lower testosterone levels in the long run4.
- Reducing risk of diabetes
Strength training seems has been found to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, too5. This may be because muscle helps the body to take glucose (sugar) out of the blood and store it6. So, good muscle mass means better blood sugar control.
- Supporting memory and cognition
Strength training and maintaining good muscle mass may help to keep our brain sharp as we get older and even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease7,8.
One study on 37 elderly women found that 12 weeks of strength training three times a week improved their cognitive capacity (memory, reasoning, learning, etc.) by 19% compared to a control group that did not do the training.9
- nhs.uk. Osteoporosis. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/osteoporosis/ [Accessed 5 Apr. 2018].
- Zehnacker CH, Bemis-Dougherty A. Effect of weighted exercises on bone mineral density in post menopausal women. A systematic review. J Geriatr Phys Ther. 2007;30(2):79-88.
- Vingren JL et al. Testosterone physiology in resistance exercise and training: the up-stream regulatory elements. Sports Med. 2010 Dec 1;40(12):1037-53.
- Hackney AC. The male reproductive system and endurance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Feb;28(2):180-9.
- Shiroma EJ et al. Strength Training and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2017 Jan;49(1):40-46.
- Scott D et al. Sarcopenia: a potential cause and consequence of type 2 diabetes in Australia’s ageing population? Med J Aust. 2016 Oct 3;205(7):329-33.
- Portugal EM et al. Aging process, cognitive decline and Alzheimer`s disease: can strength training modulate these responses? CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2015;14(9):1209-13.
- Hurley BF, Hanson ED, Sheaff AK. Strength training as a countermeasure to aging muscle and chronic disease. Sports Med. 2011 Apr 1;41(4):289-306.
9. Smolarek Ade C et al. The effects of strength training on cognitive performance in elderly women. Clin Interv Aging. 2016 Jun 1;11:749-54