Pumping iron for anti-aging

Mid-life changes. We all know what that means. Most of us expect that, as we get older, we won’t be as active, we’ll have less energy and we’ll become weaker. We may expect to have difficulty moving, have painful muscles and joints and perhaps even be dependent for our needs on someone else.Sounds grim, doesn’t it? But, believing we can’t do anything to forestall some of those physical changes is a misconception. New research has shown that there’s a virtual Fountain of Youth to be found in exercise, specifically lifting weights. High-intensity strength training can turn back our bodies’ clocks more effectively than any other program, including aerobic exercise, nutrition or medication.

When the current fitness frenzy began in the late ’70s, there were two schools of thought.

  • One recommended weight lifting to bulk up muscles and sculpt the body.
  • The other called for a cardiovascular workout of intensive aerobic training: running, biking, stair-climbing, etc.-exercise strenuous enough to reach a target heart rate that was maintained for at least 30 minutes.

Reversing aging effects
Most of us bought the idethat aerobic fitness was the way to go, while body building was purely for show. Now we know that, while aerobic fitness is still a worthy goal, high-intensity weight training has more power to reverse the effects of aging.

Our bodies are powered by more than 600 muscles. They account for one-third to half our weight. Around age 40, though, most of us begin an annual exchange, trading in a half-pound of muscle on a half-pound of fat.

Between age 50 and 80, most of us will lose about a third of our muscle mass-the main reason we slow down as we age-because of inactivity or a sedentary lifestyle.

Loss of strength and lack of energy happen so slowly you may not even notice a change. The early signs are subtle:

  • Your legs tire more quickly climbing stairs, so you begin to look for elevators
  • While shopping, you look for spots to sit or take frequent breaks
  • When standing and talking, you may lean against a wall for support.

These are little things, but over the years an increasingly sedentary lifestyle can make even simple movements like getting out of bed or standing up from a chair very difficult. It’s this muscle loss that’s responsible for the lack of mobility and decreased energy associated with the elderly.

Types of muscles
Another fact about muscles. There are two types of muscle fibres:

  • “Fast-twitch” muscle fibres are responsible for quick movements and for lifting heavy objects; they can move fast, but they tire easily.
  • “Slow-twitch” fibres-essential to posture and balance-contract more slowly but are able to maintain a contraction over a longer period.

It’s believed that, as we become less active, we either lose fast-twitch fibres or they’re transformed into slow-twitch fibres-one reason, perhaps, why we lose quickness and mobility as we age. Regardless of age, though, the function of fast-twitch fibres is improved by exercise, particularly weight training.

As a physiotherapist, I’ve had many years’ experience in rehabilitation. I was taught that loss of muscle and strength were inevitable with aging, and neither could be restored. Older, weaker clients were given exercises with weights that were half what they could lift to avoid harming their joints or overstressing their hearts.

Increased strength, speed
Recent research has shown we were far too cautious. A study published in 1990 in The Journal of the American Medical Association enlisted 10 frail, elderly (age 86 to 96) volunteers in a nursing home to do high-intensity strengthening workouts three times a week for eight weeks.

Astoundingly, their strength increased by 175 per cent, and their walking speed improved by 48 per cent.

The news gets even better. Further studies showed that a challenging, progressive strength-training program can:

  • Build muscles
  • Increase strength
  • Stop bone loss
  • Restore bone mass.

This helps prevent fractures from osteoporosis.

A strength-training program can also:

  • Improve balance
  • Increase flexibility
  • Help control weight
  • Provide an energy boost.
The stronger you are, the easier it is to move, and the more active you’re likely to be.

Start at safe level
Developing a weight-lifting program is based on the principles of rehabilitation therapy. Muscles need to be challenged in order to lay down fibre and “bulk up” to meet new demands. But you should start at a safe level and progress gradually as your strength increases. The key words are “challenge” and “progress.”

Some people think that lifting soup tins week after week will do the trick. Light weights are fine to begin with, but they have to become progressively heavier to make a difference.
Some basics to start
Here are some basics to get you going.

  • If you have joint or back problems, you may want to see a physiotherapist before you begin.
  • If you have any other medical condition that could be worsened by exercise, consult with your doctor.

Don’t try to do it all by yourself.

  • Find a qualified trainer (many community centres, fitness clubs, and YM/YWCAs offer weight-training programs). A specialist can help you design a program based on your abilities, needs and goals, and help keep you on track at the start of what should become a lifelong habit.
  • Your safety-and the success of your program-also depend on using the correct weights and knowing the proper position and lifting technique for each exercise.


  • A 30-minute session twice a week is often enough.
  • Work out between meals and drink plenty of water.
  • Begin with a five-minute warm-up to get your muscles ready, basically anything that will get your arms and legs moving.
  • When using weights, lift slowly, pause and take a breath and then return slowly to the starting position. Slow movements require more muscle fibres to work, so you get better control and have less chance of injury.
  • Consciously relax your body. You may not be aware you’re clenching your teeth or shrugging your shoulders. Using a mirror helps to maintain good posture and keep you properly aligned.
  • Afterward, cool down with gentle stretching exercises to help prevent stiffness. Again, these should be done slowly, with no bouncing.
  • Keeping a journal to record you progress helps you stay on track and feel good about your success.

Above all, learn to listen to your body. You need to differentiate between normal muscle fatigue and the sharp pain of injury. Basically, when a muscle tires, you feel an aching, burning sensation, a lactic acid build-up that disappears quickly when the muscle stops working.

Sharp pain could indicate a pre-existing joint or muscle problem and is a signal to stop.

Balance test
Now for a quick balance test:

  • Stand (with a hand above a table for support)
  • Close your eyes and lift one foot
  • Count the seconds you remain balanced.

You may be surprised to find that, like most people over 40, you can’t hold the position for 15 seconds.

Here’s a simple exercise to improve your balance and strengthen your shoulder muscles:

  • Stand straight with shoulders back and balance on one leg, keeping hips level.
  • Hold a weight in each hand (you can start with a soup can or a 1- or 2-lb. weight).
  • Keep elbows slightly bent and slowly lift the weights to shoulder height, keeping palms facing down.
  • Return arms to starting position more slowly than you raised them.
  • Do 8-15 repetitions.

You can tell when you’re becoming more fit. You feel better, look trimmer and have more energy and endurance. And you feel younger. Weigh to go!
Barbara Purdy is a physiotherapy consultant, and owner of Free to Be, a Vancouver company promoting independence and well being.