Impact of Strength Training on Aging

Impact of Strength Training on Aging

The purpose of today’s article is to look at several recent studies that give us some ideas on how to age well.  I believe strongly in the old mantra “you’re only as old as you feel.”  If you are strong, mobile and healthy at 50, 60, 70 or 80, then you are not old.  Chronological age means nothing.  So what are some good tips to ensure that you age well?

Study #1: Resistance Exercise Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle, Melov, et al

Muscles become smaller and weaker with age unless you work at preventing this process.  New evidence shows that a key part of the decline occurs in the mitochondria, which is the primary engine of energy production.

The study, conducted on men around 70 years old, showed that “…the older individuals were able to improve strength by approximately 50%, to levels that were only 38% less than that of young individuals…”. This means that older folks engaged in weight training narrow the gap in strength levels between themselves and their younger counterparts from 59% to 38%, which is an improvement of almost 36%!  And it was only a 6 month study.

Muscle biopsies from the study showed “a remarkable reversal of the expression profile of 179 genes associated with age and exercise training…Genes that were down-regulated with age were correspondingly up-regulated with exercise, while genes that were up-regulated with age, were down-regulated with exercise.”

Take Home Message:  when it comes to mitochondria, weight training reverses nearly 40 years of aging.

Study #2: Telomeres and the Special Role of Strength Training, Archives of Interval Medicine

What are telemeres?  Telomeres cap the DNA chromosomes in your cells and protect these chromosomes from damage. As you age, telomeres progressively wear and shorten from repeated cell division, oxidative stress, inflammation, and other metabolic processes, eventually leaving the cell’s chromosomes unprotected. When the caps are completely eroded or disappear, the wear and tear begins to cut into your genes, causing cells to become damaged and discarded as you grow older.

The researchers conducted this study by measuring the telomeres in twins to gauge the effect of exercise on aging, by studying 2401 twins (2152 women and 249 men, aged 18 to 81), using questionnaires on physical activity level, smoking status, disease status, and socioeconomic status, and extracted DNA from blood samples.

Results:  They found that while normal telomere length decreases with age, the women and men who were physically active had longer telomeres than those who were sedentary, even after adjusting for the influence of age, weight, disease, socioeconomic status, and smoking.  Additionally, the study participants who spent more than 3 hours each week engaged in vigorous physical activity (strength training) had longer telomeres than subjects 10 years younger! Since they were studying twins, these differences weren’t due to genes, but rather due to the lifestyle factor of exercise.

Take Home Message:  lifting weight has the power to make you younger, as expressed through the length of your telomeres.

Study #3:  Strength training helps older adults live longer, Penn State

The researchers at Penn State found that older adults who met twice-weekly strength training guidelines showed lower odds of dying. This study is the first to demonstrate the association in a large, nationally representative sample over an extended time period, in an older population.

While it has long been known that strength training in older adults promotes a healthier, more vigorous and higher quality of life, most of the previous data collected has been in the area of aerobic activity, with very few studies done on strength training. As mentioned above, researchers are now showing demonstrated benefits of strength training on strength, muscle mass and physical function, and they’ve also shown improvements from strength training in chronic conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, low back pain and obesity.

Take Home Message:  strength training will improve the quality of your life as you age.

Study #4: 1997-2001 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)

The purpose of this study was to examine the mortality effects on older adults who meet strength training guidelines. The NHIS collects health, disease and disability data of the U.S. population from a nationally representative sampling of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and the 1997-2001 survey included more than 30,000 adults age 65 and older.

During the survey period, more than 9 percent of older adults reported strength training at least twice a week. The researchers followed the respondents for 15 years through death certificate data from the National Center for Health Statistics National Death Index.

Conclusion:  …older adults who strength trained at least twice a week had 46 percent lower odds of death for any reason than those who did not. They also had 41 percent lower odds of cardiac death and 19 percent lower odds of dying from cancer. They were also more likely to have normal body weight, to engage in aerobic exercise and to abstain from alcohol and tobacco.

Take Home Message:  this study provides solid, statistically significant evidence that strength training in older adults is beneficial for anti-aging, and goes way above and beyond improving muscle strength and physical function.

Clearly, if you want to age well, and have a high quality of life into your 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and beyond, there are many factors that come into play such as stress management, sleep quality, nutrition, social connections, etc…However, do not downplay the importance of strength training.  More and more, science is proving that it is critical for aging well.

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