The Science Behind Weightlifting’s Benefits for Over 40s
by UP Fitness, April 28, 2017
How do you defy the ageing process? The answer might be more simple than you’d imagine.
It’s no secret at UP that when it comes to improving a client’s body composition, strength and overall physical health, we focus heavily on resistance exercise.
If you’re looking to stop the clock and stay feeling younger, vibrant and healthy for longer, this could be the key.
For our middle-aged and older clients, we could argue that doing resistance exercise (RE) should become an even greater part of their lives as the years advance.
The benefits of weight training and resistance exercise for this population are numerous, but here are the main reasons why you should be working out with resistance…
- Decreased risk of all-cause mortality.
- Increased muscle mass.
- Increased mobility and functionality.
- Improved bone health.
- Improved cognitive function and health.
- Improved glucose control and nutrient sensitivity.
- Improved hormonal environment.
- Preserve metabolic rate.
The list goes on, but the take-home message is that resistance exercise is .’ for you.
In terms of the population we will be discussing, these benefits are of even greater importance.
In this four-part article series, we will look at how training and nutrition should be adapted to the middle-aged and older people, blending a mix of scientific evidence and examples of what we have seen at UP to work best with thousands of clients.
Is losing strength and muscle really inevitable?
It is generally thought that as we age, we inevitably lose strength and muscle mass, the latter being termed medically as ‘sarcopenia’.
A look at anyone who is weight training into their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s-plus will tell you that this statement is plainly incorrect.
Of course, sarcopenia is a very serious and real condition, which affects millions and millions of older people each year. But is the extent to which it occurs and affects these populations an inevitable part of ageing? Probably not.
Instead, the more likely culprit is muscle disuse and inactivity, as well as other considerations related to nutrition, inflammation and hormonal health, which we tackle in Part 2 and Part 3 in greater detail.
If we think about it, by the time many men and women are into their 40s (even 20s and 30s for many!), laziness and complacency with their health and fitness begin to creep in, and so the body sees no need to hang on to ‘expensive’ muscle tissue (by ‘expensive’, we mean metabolically expensive – as it takes more calories to preserve every pound of muscle tissue the body has).
What does muscle disuse cause?
The alarming possible effects of muscle disuse and subsequently sarcopenia includes a loss of muscle strength, mobility issues, frailty and poor posture, weak bones (and later down the line, osteoporosis), (pre-) diabetes, and perhaps why our middle-aged client base is becoming one of the largest at UP, middle-aged weight gain.
More worryingly still, physical inactivity has been identified by the World Health Organisation as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality.(23)
If you remember from earlier, the effects of sarcopenia are opposite to all the benefits of resistance exercise, highlighting the increasing importance of working out as we age.
To showcase this point brilliantly, a very recent study in 2014 on close to 3,000 cancer survivors found that those who participated specifically in resistance exercise, rather than general activity, had a lowered risk of all-cause mortality after cancer treatment.(9)
This is huge. The evidence shows a great need for resistance exercise in ageing populations, particularly if the impact on vulnerable groups such as cancer survivors is so strong.
What is ‘anabolic resistance’?
‘Anabolic resistance’ can be termed as the muscle’s reduced ability to respond to an anabolic stimulus (either nutrition or exercise) with normal spikes in muscle protein synthesis (the way the body repairs and grows muscle tissue).
This phenomenon is not limited to older populations, and in fact is growing rapidly (at a worrying rate) in younger populations too.
It is not precisely known why this phenomenon occurs. However, the two primary theses explained in the current research suggest that the decline in physical activity and growing levels of chronic inflammation are responsible for the inability to properly respond to anabolic stimuli. (1)
In healthy, active, young individuals, the overall response to the level of inflammation is lower, hence why younger people can ‘get away with’ more bad foods here and there.
Their activity levels are also higher, and hence they can generate a greater anabolic stimulus. When we compare this to the typical middle-aged client we encounter at UP, the response isn’t quite the same, as the diagram below illustrates. (1)
One of the greatest tools we use to overcome this anabolic resistance so prevalent in today’s society is hard strength training, with all forms of resistance exercise utilised.
The response of muscle protein metabolism in response to anabolic stimuli in young and elderly (MPS = Muscle Protein Synthesis; MPB = Muscle Protein Breakdown). As you can see, the elderly have a reduced ability to generate a maximal protein synthetic response.
The ‘mTOR’ connection
When examining the research around resistance exercise and the anabolic response in comparisons between young and older adults, the clear difference is in the peak of muscle protein synthesis generated.
In order to create these high levels of muscle protein synthesis, effective signalling of mTOR pathways is necessary.
mTOR is short for ‘mammalian target of rapamycin.’ It is the signalling pathway that has been repeatedly shown to be critical in the regulation of mRNA translation (the gene writing process of new proteins), which leads to muscle protein synthesis and then, ultimately, muscle growth.
In typical ageing populations, this pathway is somewhat dysfunctional, and is one of the problems defining the issue of anabolic resistance, as the ability to repair, maintain and build upon new muscle tissue becomes impaired.
When physically inactive, the signalling proteins associated with the mTOR pathway become desensitised.
How can we solve this with resistance exercise?
The research is very promising when looking at the effects of different strength training strategies for ageing populations. Despite showing a generally blunted response compared to younger adults, frequent resistance exercise across all intensities has all been shown to promote muscle hypertrophy in older adults.
This difference in age response may be due to the failure to match overall volume in the training interventions used. (13) Regardless, it is clear that despite any ‘anabolic resistance’, older adults can produce a strong enough anabolic response to induce hypertrophy.
Interestingly, while we know that lifting heavy (a relative term remember, especially as you age) will induce hypertrophy in all ages, for our geriatric and even more so, the injury-filled, middle-aged populations, low-intensity resistance exercise has been recently shown to be able to induce hypertrophy.
Although many of the studies involve blood restriction methods (which we rarely, if ever use at UP, due to the advanced nature of the training modality), it gives us food for thought on different ways we can train older people. (6)
Using low loads, but pushing the repetitions higher, can be an effective way to train older, and especially geriatric populations.
It seems that in order to counteract anabolic resistance, frequent stimuli are necessary, strengthening the notion that we should try to be active as often as possible, perhaps more so as we age.
Resistance Training and Muscle Strength
As we know, in order to avoid the loss of muscle tissue, breakdown of muscle proteins need to be balanced with the process of making new muscle proteins.
If synthesis is not adequately stimulated, muscle protein balance will be in a constant negative state, which will result in muscle loss.
Muscle mass is the most metabolically active tissue in the body, and a reduction in muscle mass as we age can have implications on basal metabolic rate, and perhaps more importantly, nutrient partitioning and sensitivity (which will be explained further in part 3).
More specifically, reduced muscle mass will negatively impact muscular strength, which will deteriorate bone health, daily physical function and lifespan.
Muscle mass and strength are closely linked as we age, and recent studies have proved muscular strength as a remarkably strong predictor of mortality rates, even after adjusting for body composition, cardiovascular health and fitness. (17)
What about cardiovascular training?
As we know, all forms of exercise are not created equal, and when muscle mass is our goal, resistance training should be number one on our list.
However, we should not discount the positive effects more traditional aerobic training can have when looking to counteracting anabolic resistance.
Besides the cardiovascular benefits (which remember, can be achieved through well-designed weight training programs too), more traditional aerobic training can help improve the anabolic response to nutrients through improved endothelial function and mTOR signalling.
In this particular 2007 study the ‘aerobic training’ consisted simply of a 45-minute treadmill walk at 70% heart rate, something similar to what we are large proponents of at UP (for extra work outside the gym). (7)
Interval training is great, but for many isn’t the best option (for reasons beyond the scope of this article), and so adding in some power walking can be great for not only heart and muscle health, but also for its fat loss benefits.
Is it too late to start?
One of the misconceptions prevalent when discussing the topic of resistance exercise and successful ageing is that many think it’s too late to undo the damage of the previous 40 to 50 years in their life.
As we now know, we can still develop muscle mass and strength as we age, and there are now numerous studies supporting the notion that older age does not reduce the capacity to adapt to a progressive, well-designed resistance training program.
In fact, to take an extreme example, a study published on institutionalised nonagenarians showed high-intensity resistance exercise to provide an impressive gain in strength and muscle size and functional movement. (5)
If the effects of sarcopenia can be halted and even reversed at 95 years old, the benefits can be phenomenal and widespread for those in their 40s and 50s.
When it comes to reversing signs of ‘sarcopenia’, resistance exercise provides the pathway to improving any hormonal and inflammatory issues that these populations typically display.
It is the number one influencer and master signal to allow the other components of your lifestyle changes (such as diet, inflammation reduction) to work effectively.
Our next instalments will cover how training with weights can help with the menopause and andropause in women and men. Then we examine the thought process of program design we use at UP to train older populations, as well as highlighting considerations needed between training men and women.
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(3) – Cuervo, A. (2008). Autophagy and Ageing. Trends in Genetics: TIG , 604-612.
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(5) Fiatarone, M., Marks, E., Ryan, N., Meredith, C., Lipsitz, L., & Evans, W. (1990). High-intensity strength training in nonagenarians. Effects on skeletal muscle. Journal of the American Medical Association , 3029-34.
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(7) Fujita, S., Rasmussen, B., Cadenas, J., Drummod, M., Glynn, E., Sattler, F., et al. (2007). Aerobic Exercise Overcomes the Age-Related Insulin Resistance of Muscle Protein Metabolism by Improving Endothelial Function and Akt/Mammalian Target of Rapamycin Signaling. Diabetes , 1615-1622.
(8) Greiwe, J., Cheng, B., Deborah, R., Yarasheski, K., & Semenkovich, C. (2001). Resistance exercise decreases skeletal muscle tumor necrosis factor a in frail elderly humans. Journal of the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology , 475-482.
(9) Hardee, J., Porter, R., Sui, X., Archer, E., Lee, I. L., & Blair, S. (2014). The effect of resistance exercise on all-cause mortality in cancer survivors. Mayo Clinic Proceedings , 1108-15.
(10) Kerr, D., Ackland, T., Maslen, B., Morton, A., & Prince, R. (2001). Resistance training over 2 years increases bone mass in calcium-replete postmenopausal women. Journal of Bone Mineral Research , 175-181.
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(12) Kraemer, W., Hakkinen, K., Newton, R., Nindl, B., Volek, J., McCormick, M., et al. (1999). Effects of heavy-resistance training on hormonal response patterns in younger vs. older men. Journal of Applied Physiology , 982-992.
(13) Kumar, V., Selby, A., Rankin, D., Patel, R., Atherton, P., Hildebrandt, W., et al. (2009). Age-related differences in the dose-response relationship of muscle protein synthesis to resistance exercise in young and old men. Journal of Physiology, 211-217.
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(17) Ruiz, J., Xuemei, S., Lobelo, F., Duck-chul, L., Morrow, J., Jackson, A., et al. (2014). Muscular Strength and Adiposity as Predictors of Adulthood Cancer Mortality in Men. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention , 1468-1476.
(18) Sato, K., Iemitsu, M., Matsutani, K., Kurihara, T., Hamaoka, T., & Fujita, S. (2014). Resistance training restores muscle sex steroid hormone steroidogenesis in older men. The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology , 1891-1897.
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(20) Smith, G., Atherton, P., Reeds, D., Mohammad, B., Rankin, D., Rennie, M., et al. (2011). Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults: a randomised controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , 402-412.
(21) Taku, K., Melby, M., Kronenberg, F., Kurzer, M., & Messina, M. (2012). Extracted or synthesised soybean isoflavones reduce menopausal hot flash frequency and severity: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. The Journal of the North American Menopause Society , 776-790.
(22) Toth, M., Matthews, D., Tracy, R., & Previs, M. (2005). Age-related differences in skeletal muscle protein synthesis: relation to markers of immune activation. Endocrinology and Metabolism , 883-891.
(23) WHO. (2009). Global Health Risks: Mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks. Geneva, Switzerland: Department of Health Statistics and Information in the Information, Evidence and Research Cluster of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
(24) Woods, J., Wilund, K., Martin, S., & Kistler, B. (2012). Exercise, Inflammation and Aging, Aging and Disease , 130-140.
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