Weight training keeps your body young

When Ken Hall turned 50, he discovered an elixir to keep him young — weight training. “Fifty was the magic number,” says Hall, whose former job as an information systems manager with a St. Catharines manufacturing company made few physical demands. Even though Hall skated in winter and water-skied in summer, he was carrying 10 extra pounds he wanted to shed. “I’d always been reasonably active and I wanted to keep in shape,” he says. “You lose energy and strength as you get older, and I needed something to compensate for that.”

That was 23 years ago. Today, the lean and fit 73-year-old is a fixture at Fulton Fitness gym in Thorold where he works out three times a week with resistance machines. Hall is proof of what researchers and fitness experts are now documenting: that weight training is an essential factor in maintaining overall health and strength.

In general, you lose 1/2 pound of muscle every year past the age of 20. And while physical activity, like aerobics, swimming, power walking and running, is great for cardiovascular fitness and keeping off the pounds, it can’t stop muscle loss. Only weight training can halt or reverse the muscle shvelling and weakening that comes with aging.

A landmark 1990 study by Danish researcher Henrik Klitgaard found that exceptionally fit 70-year-old masters-level male swimmers and runners had no more muscle mass or strength than sedentary 70-year-olds. But 67-year-olds who lifted weights regularly were stronger than the average 28-year-old man.

“Weight training increases your energy, strength, stamina and mental alertness,” agrees Hall, who still skates and plays golf (without a cart).

In addition, regular weight training helps maintain bone mass and reduces the risk of developing osteoporosis, a brittle bone disease which affects 1.4 million Canadians. One in four women over age 50, and one in five men over 70 suffers from this debilitating and potentially crippling disease, which can result in weak bones, a curvature of the spine at the shoulders known as “dowager’s hump,” and, more seriously, fractured hips, wrists or spines. Hip fractures can increase the likelihood of death by up to 20 per cent.

That’s what drew Joan Kennedy to the gym. Two years ago, she leaned over in bed to turn off her alarm clock and five bones in her back broke. Then 56, she had no previous warning signs of any problems. When she was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis, she was surprised.

That’s why osteoporosis — which means bones that are porous and full of holes — is called the silent thief. After age 35, we lose about one per cent of bone mass every year. After menopause, women can lose between three — five per cent annually. We can lose bone mass steadily for many years without experiencing any symptoms, until a bone fractures. By then, up to 30 per cent of a person’s bone mass may have been lost.

Exercise is vital in helping prevent osteoporosis, and alleviating the symptoms and reducing the risk of fracture if you are already diagnosed with it.

While weight bearing activity (walking, running, dancing, tennis, bowling, badminton, basketball, volleyball and soccer, for example) helps keep bones strong, weight-resistance activity is just as important in enhancing bone health. Weight training not only prevents bone loss, but may actually increase bone mass while strengthening muscles and increasing co-ordination. And that reduces the risk of falls and resulting fractures.

When she retired from her job at Bell Canada last summer, Kennedy joined Fulton Fitness and worked with a personal trainer to develop a weight training program, which she does three times a week.

“It’s really improved my stamina and done me a world a good,” says Kennedy, who supplements her routine with regular walking.

Both Hall and Kennedy reflect the changing face of the gym. Weight rooms were once the domain of Schwarzenegger wanna-bes. But now women and men of all ages, body types and sizes, and all levels of fitness, are working out.

Besides the overall benefits of weight training, strong muscles help you perform normal, everyday tasks — carrying bags of groceries, lifting your grandchildren, climbing stairs, cleaning your house, mowing the lawn, shovelling the sidewalk, even getting out of bed — easily and effectively.

“I’m not a bodybuilder, and I don’t consider myself extraordinary,” says Hall. “I just didn’t want to be a couch potato — or Mr. Pear Shape.”

Easy to use resistance machines, free weights, soft wrist and ankle weights can all be incorporated into a weight training routine in a gym, or at home. It’s important to remember you’re not trying to impress anyone with how much you can lift. Your goal is not to bulk up, but to achieve and maintain good health, fitness and self-confidence.

“I don’t know if you’ll live longer, but you’ll live better,” says Hall. “I’m doing it to get more out of life.”

How weights can help
With a regular weight training regimen, you can:

  • Increase muscle strength
  • Increase stamina and energy
  • Achieve better balance and co-ordination, reducing the risk of falls
  • Prevent osteoporosis
  • Increase muscle tone and gain lean muscle tissue
  • Lose body fat
  • Possibly reduce risk of heart disease and adult-onset diabetes
  • Relieve arthritic symptoms
  • Alleviate depression and promote positive mental attitude, self- confidence
  • Enhance the immune system