Can Strength Training After 50 Reverse the Clock?

Why lifting weights is extra important in the senior years.

You may think that once you hit a certain age, retire, and spend your days playing with the grandkids you no longer need to worry about pumping iron. A daily walk is fine for seniors, right?

Not so fast. Lifting weights has just as many benefits (or maybe even more) as you get older as it does when you’re in your 20s and 30s. According to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, “Current research has demonstrated that strength-training exercises have the ability to combat weakness and frailty and their debilitating consequences.”

Regular weight training (two to three days every week), builds muscle mass, preserves bone density, and promotes vitality – even as we get older.

The study further found that strength training can stave off osteoporosis, as well as heart disease, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes. It can also help improve sleep and reduce depression.

I’m 50. Can I really start now?

We lose strength and muscle mass as we age (about five percent a decade once we reach our 40s), which can lead to falls and injuries – both of which can be debilitating when we’re seniors. However, in Strength Training Past 50, author Wayne L. Westcott says that even small amounts of weightlifting – 20- to 40-minute sessions, even from home, can have many benefits. As reported on Human Kinetics, weightlifting programs have “resulted in a gain of three to four pounds of muscle after just three to four months of strength training.”

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends weight training for all people over age 50, even if you’ve never lifted before. For example, they noted that “a group of nursing home residents ranging in age from 87 to 96 improved their muscle strength by almost 180 percent after just eight weeks of weightlifting.”

The cost of not exercising

RunRepeat did a meta-analysis of 200 peer-reviewed studies on the benefits of strength training for seniors and older adults. Their research found that there are a whopping 78 benefits to lifting weights. But despite the stats, “80 percent of adults aren’t engaging in enough physical activity to reach prescribed guidelines,” noting that “inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are extremely dangerous” – especially for seniors.

Women over the age of 50 comprise about 80 percent of osteoporosis cases (weakening bones), and half of seniors who fall and suffer hip fractures die within two years of their accident.

There are also monetary costs to a sedentary lifestyle.

According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “about $2.1 billion, or 2.5 percent of the total direct health care costs in Canada, were attributable to physical inactivity in 1999…. [and] about 21,000 lives were lost prematurely in 1995 because of inactivity.”

According to ParticiPaction, inactivity is the “fourth leading risk factor for death worldwide,” noting that eight in 10 Canadians are not active enough. In the U.S., “the direct costs of inactivity and obesity account for some 9.4 percent of the national health care expenditures.” A huge study in The Lancet back in 2013 revealed that globally, inactivity costs $67.5 billion each year.

So how can weight training help?

If you’re already an avid exerciser, you’ll know that lean muscle mass does all kinds of good things for your body. And if you’re a senior, it does even more good—and increasingly important!—things. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Weight control: Since muscle tissue burns more calories than fat, the more muscle you gain, the better your body functions. Metabolism increases, and calories are burned (even at rest), meaning you’ll lose inches more quickly and easily than if you’re only doing aerobic exercise.
  • Lean muscle reduces your resting blood pressure and reduces inflammation in the body.
  • Chronic pain—arthritis and back pain—goes down as your body’s strength increases.
  • Strength training improves balance, coordination, and overall mobility. This means frailty goes down, and the likelihood of falls decreases.
  • Mental wellness, as well as confidence and self-esteem, increase.
  • Overall brain health enjoys a boost as you push and challenge your mind and body to move your body in ways you haven’t before.

Taken together, these benefits mean increased vitality, independence and quality of life. For example, an older person who’s fit, agile, mentally stable and feels good about themselves is much more likely to enjoy a healthier, more independent lifestyle than someone who doesn’t exercise.

What’s the plan?

As with any exercise program, it’s wise to consult your doctor before you begin. Once you get the go-ahead, aim to strength train two to three times a week, being sure to have a rest day in between each workout. Warm-up, cool down, and stretch. Focus on the major muscle groups—arms, legs and core. Buy a couple dumbbells for your home gym, or get creative with soup cans, full water bottles and milk jugs. Grab a sturdy chair and perhaps some resistance bands or an exercise ball, and you should be ready to start with at home workout. If you are able, going to the gym and hiring a personal trainer to watch your form and create a plan for you is a great boost.

To help you reach your goals, our Dara Smart Scale measures and tracks 17 different body health indicators, including bone mass and muscle mass – two things that decline with age. Read more about our scale here, and see how you can use it and our FitTrack app to learn more about your body and put you on the road to aging well.

For overall wellness, revisit our previous blogs on seven healthy habits that add years to your life; seven best bodyweight exercises, and how the health of your gut can impact your overall health as you age.

Walking every day isn’t enough. Our bodies need to be challenged even in our golden years. So grab those weights — your physical and mental health will thank you.

Track your weight-training progress with the FitTrack Dara scale. With 17 user insights beyond weight, such as muscle rate, body water percentage, metabolic age, and more, it's the perfect health tool to help you get and stay fit!