Sean Beckford
Aug 27 · 9 min read

Why Is It Important to Strength Train as You Age?

By Sean Beckford (CSCS, CISSN)

As we get older the idea of exercising for some can be daunting. It can even be daunting for the child or young adult that has never exercised purposefully before. For the everyday person who works at a desk and does a 9–5, or split shifts, strength training is more critical and important to your overall health than you think. Working in the fitness industry for over 6 years, I’ve heard all the reasons as to why someone couldn’t exercise or didn’t want to lift weights. I’ll leave some of these stories in the office. That being said, the misconception continues to exist of some individuals thinking that strength training and lifting weights will make them “bulky” & “large” as opposed to being “lean” and “skinny”. Actors with bulk like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson quickly come to mind. If you follow competitive weightlifting mainstream names such as Matt Fraser and Tia-Claire Toomey of CrossFit or Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson of Strongman, better known as The Mountain from Game of Thrones are just a few popular examples of individual athletes, in addition to National Football League (NFL) Players if you factor in mainstream sports teams.

Any individual beginning a consistent fitness regimen for first time who believes that a 3 month training cycle & caloric bulk will transform their physique like some of the examples listed above in one round of consistent training hasn’t fully considered a few factors.

  1. The amount of calories, and the type of calories that must be consumed.
  2. The years of compounded interest accumulated through consistent strength training an individual must undertake in dedicating their bodies and minds to transforming one’s physique/honing their athleticism.

In fact, there are many athletes in many domains of sport who lift consistently, have physiques that are quite the opposite of those listed above, and are in excellent shape. You don’t have to be an professional athlete to weight train, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attack the weights with purpose when you go into your local health club or condo gym for your next workout. Here are some reasons why:

Slow Down the Aging Process:

As we approach our late 20’s and early 30’s we begin to lose muscle mass naturally. As we approach our 50’s this process can be significantly expedited due to sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the degenerative loss of muscle mass when we age. This can occur at 0.5%-1% per year after the age of 50. Once someone hits age 65, sarcopenia will occur in about 10% of adults. Some of this is due to hormonal and neurological factors as the individual ages, but gradual to significant reduction of physical activity will accelerate its occurrence. (von Haehling, Morley and Anker, 2010)

When we get older, the tendency is to move less not more. This can be both for voluntary and involuntary reasons. If, and when these situations occur, we are at a higher risk of losing bone mineral density (BMD), and are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis. (Tringali, 2019) For women this is even more critical due to menopause which comes for most women around middle age (45–55). Menopause significantly drops estrogen levels leading to high rates of bone loss for women, in particular women that are experiencing or finishing menopause after the age of 50. (Gold, 2012) The great news is that lifting weights can counteract and slow down this rate of aging significantly if you do it consistently, and in the right way for both men and women.

Reduce Injury Risks and Improve Brain Function among Adults & the Elderly

For the recreational exercising senior, general physical activity, and strength training will improve body composition, but also increase skeletal muscle mass (the amount of muscle attached to the skeleton), Even more so, for seniors experiencing brain fog that comes with age: exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. (Törpel et al., 2018) On a molecular and cellular level, resistance training improves cognitive health through the release of a multi-faceted protein known as Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1). (AJ, 2000)

This hormone acts similarly to insulin but is released in the liver instead of the pancreas like insulin is in response to Human Growth Hormone (HGH) being stimulated by the pituitary gland. What’s important to know is that IGF-1 and HGH stimulate muscle growth. IGF-1 in particular, helps to increase blood flow through the brain by moving through our brain and spinal cord, also known as the Central Nervous System (CNS). (AJ, 2000) The CNS allows us to move our body and mentally function properly. IGF-1 helps to protect Blood Brain Barrier (BBB) which is responsible for protecting our brain and blocking substances that disrupt our neurological functions. (AJ, 2000) Once we reach adulthood the body naturally begins to produce less IGF-1 and slows at higher rates if you don’t live an active lifestyle. (Moran et al., 2007)

Therefore, it can be said that if seniors decide to take up strength training, it can potentially have profound impacts on their brain health. In addition to this, research indicates that diminished IGF-1 levels lead higher chances for seniors’ having neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s to name a few, along with an increased risk for stroke. (Moran et al., 2007)

From an injury prevention standpoint, strength training in elderly populations also lowers the risk of falls for seniors each year. One out of three older adults (65 years of age and older) experiences a fall. These falls often lead to injury and possibly even preventable death. In 2008–2009, about 1 in 3 seniors aged 65 and older, were concerned about future falls. In 2012–2013 alone the United States alone had over 60,000 deaths as a result from falls. (Alexander, 2017) Short-and long-term effects from falls lead to short & long-term disabilities in seniors. This can lead to reduced quality of life, loss of independence, increased healthcare costs, and fear of doing daily activities. For some individuals this fear alone can wreak havoc on one’s day-to-day routine, and create worries for the long term. (Tringali, 2018)

Reduce Injury Risks and Improve Brain Function among Youth

For the youth athlete, common questions that are asked by concerned parents about their child participating in weight training activity are: “How safe is lifting weights for children?” “Do weights stunt growth?” “How old should they be if they lift?” “Does lifting weights make them bigger, faster, and stronger?” and “Will strength training keep my child from getting hurt?” (Williams, 2013) Current research by strength and conditioning professionals are in congruence with one another; resistance training helps to improve bone density, body composition, sprinting ability, and jump performance. These benefits contribute to improved motor neuron firing in the muscle, which can improve a youth’s physical adaptation to general exercise, and also specific exercise related to sport, while developing muscle balance & symmetry in different planes of motion. (Williams, 2013)

That alone leads to enhanced benefits not only from an athletic standpoint making the child more coordinated, and efficient in movement. However, similar benefits seen in seniors who strength train are also seen in youth who strength train when it comes to brain health. IGF-1 production in humans is at its highest during adolescence. (Yan et al., 2011) This is also when youth are beginning to go into more specific training via weights and aerobics, making increased oxygen and blood flow to the brain paramount to fuel both cognitive development and physical restoration of the body.

Furthermore, improvements in common health risk factors in overweight, and obese youth such as cardiovascular & respiratory issues, are also noted along with the reduction of cholesterol levels, and Type 2 diabetes are noted benefits that come from youth participating in a strength training regimen. (Williams, 2013) In our modern society today, these cardiovascular, and heart issues are more important to note in youth due to our sedentary lifestyles in comparison to our parent’s and grandparent’s generation. Lastly, strength training lowers the injury risk of the youth athlete in their chosen sport while improving their self-confidence and social skills. Specific movement recommendations for weight-bearing exercise should be done at an age where they can follow direction and understand the risks, which is around 6–8 years old. (Williams, 2013)

General Recommendations:

Below is a recommended list of general recommendations varying forms of strength training and other forms of activity youth and the elderly can participate in based on age ranges and physical capacity. (Williams, 2013)

Stage 1: Get the Kids Moving Early: (Males and Females 0–6 Years of Age)
• Do something active 60 minutes a day along with other youth
• Learn proper movement mechanics; run, jump, and explore

Stage 2: Basic Trainings: (Males and Females 6–9)
• Do less-structured activity emphasizing movement competency
• Active physical participation in and out of school
• Begin to the process of placing your child into physical activities that challenge aerobic capacity & flexibility (running, swimming and gymnastics)

Stage 3: Get more Technical (Males and Females 8–12)
• Refine technical components of movement in sports that the child likes along with added movement
• Learn proper bodyweight training: push-ups, bodyweight squats, pull-ups, crunches, and external resistance with medicine balls and stability balls

Stage 4: Streamline the Approach (Males and Females 11–16)
• Moderate structure emphasizing technical skills in one-to-two sports, looking for specific performance outcomes in individual sports, or to prepare the youth for game-time situations in group sports
• Build and maintain a strong aerobic base
• Linear Periodization can be emphasized with specific phases of training

Stage 5: Competition, Details, Details! (Males and Females 15–21 +)
• Majority of training should be structured for performance in that specific sport emphasizing strengths and shoring up weaknesses.
• Training cycles must account for proper progressions and adequate rest
• Practice like you play. High level of competition between teammates and opponents at recreational, national and professional levels

Stage 6: Life-Long Activity (All Ages)
• Participate in familiar sports or activities individually, or in a group setting.
• Avoid going from an active childhood to a sedentary adult lifestyle. Don’t stop moving. Use it or lose it!
• Participate in less-intense recreational activities depending on physical capabilities

Although this article is written to encompass the importance of strength training throughout the lifecycle, it’s important to keep in mind that healthy nutrition, along with quality sleep are also key pillars of optimal health for the human body. Strength training serves as a compliment, supporting and optimizing these integral components of health. Having a well-designed exercise program is an effective strategy for maximizing results in both recreational and athletic populations. By following the above recommendations, individuals will be provided with strength and conditioning tools to last them a lifetime.

References:

AJ, P. (2000). Interactions of IGF-1 with the blood-brain barrier in vivo and in situ. — PubMed — NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11025411

Alexander, PHD, J. (2017). THE STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROFESSIONAL’S ROLE IN PREVENTING FALLS OF OLDER ADULTS. [online] Nsca.com. Available at: https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/1b6fcb5960a044fb835e937dd1b18f9d/trainertips_preventingfalls.pdf

Gold, E. (2012). The Timing of the Age at Which Natural Menopause Occurs. [online] US National Library of Medicine. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285482/

Moran, S., Chen, Y., Ruthie, A. and Nir, Y. (2007). Alterations in IGF-I affect elderly: role of physical activity. [online] Biomedcentral. Available at: https://eurapa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1007/s11556-007-0022-1

Tringali, V. (2018). Resistance Exercise Preserves Physical Function. [online] Nsca.com. Available at: https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/nsca-coach/resistance-exercise-preserves-physical-function-of-older-adultsimplications-for-strength-and-conditioning-professionals/

Törpel, A., Herold, F., Hamacher, D., Müller, N. and Schega, L. (2018). Strengthening the Brain — Is Resistance Training with Blood Flow Restriction an Effective Strategy for Cognitive Improvement?. [online] National Institute of Health. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6210989/

von Haehling, S., Morley, J. and Anker, S. (2010). An overview of sarcopenia: facts and numbers on prevalence and clinical impact. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3060646/

Williams, C. (2013). Youth Performance and Fitness — Strength and Conditioning Information for Parents. [online] Nsca.com. Available at: https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/ptq/youth-performance-and-fitnessstrength-and-conditioning-information-for-parents/

Yan, H., Mitschelen, M., Bixler, G., Brucklacher, R., Farley, J., Han, S., Freeman, W. and Sonntag, W. (2011). Circulating IGF1 regulates hippocampal IGF1 levels and brain gene expression during adolescence. [online] Available at: https://joe.bioscientifica.com/view/journals/joe/211/1/27.xml?cited-by=yes&legid=joe%3B211%2F1%2F27&print

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