Do you ever find yourself doing this? Instead of selecting the bulky free weights you’ve always used, you find yourself reaching for lighter ones. I do this myself. Why? Well, I’m tired. I just don’t want to use heavy weights anymore. Life is effort enough. Sometimes I want less effort as I age, not more.
But I can’t afford to think like that.
Here is the rub. Strength, function and endurance are paramount to preserving quality of life. If we don’t push back against loss of energy, and mobility, we will weaken. And weaken quickly.
What the astronauts taught us
Both men and women lose muscle and strength at an alarming rate as we age. Some studies suggest that the process begins in our early twenties, and others that we lose muscle each year after the age of forty. Atrophy affects muscles in a startling way. A well-documented example: NASA research found that astronauts returned to earth with significant muscle and strength loss because they were not using their muscles in a weightless environment.
This process is particularly significant for women. Women live longer then men and their ageing process is different because of their smaller size and hormonal fluctuations. Starting around the age of forty, most women lose about one-third of a pound of muscle tissue each year. As she ages, a woman’s metabolism continues to slow, and she has to work harder not to let body fat take the place of lost muscle. Bone health and skeletal disease become a considerable concern. Osteoporosis (a severe condition in which the bone becomes dangerously porous and weak) can silently sabotage the body. By the time you realize you have it, it is often too late.
Strong Women Stay Younger
Research shows that it is never too late to start lifting weights. In her book Strong Women Stay Young, Dr. Miriam E. Nelson cites research at Tufts University showing that men and women in their sixties who lifted weights strengthened their muscles by 100 to 175 percent. Dr. Walter Frontera had his volunteers work at 80 percent of their capacity; in just twelve weeks the muscles that were exercised became 10 to 12 percent larger. Nelson expanded on this research, working with forty healthy but sedentary postmenopausal women. Half of the women maintained their usual lifestyle; the other half came to her lab twice a week and lifted weights. After strength training twice a week for a year, the bodies of the women in the second group were fifteen to twenty years more youthful. Bone lost was prevented or reversed, and flexibility and balance improved.
Another must-read book on the important of strength training for women is Younger Next Year for Women, an earlier book in Chris Crowley’s popular series. (See The Younger Next Year Back Book, in 3rd of February blog). Crowley and co-author, the late gerontologist Henry S. Lodge, review the latest science on women’s nutrition, heart and bone health, and importance of commitment and connection to others. A sizeable portion of the book focuses on the biology of exercise and strength training.
Crowley and Lodge make a vital distinction between ageing and decay. Ageing is inevitable and it comes with grey hair, wrinkles, and the odd creaky or arthritic joint: a natural process. Decay, they argue, albeit natural, is optional: ‘70 percent of premature death and ageing is lifestyle-related’ (their emphasis). They conclude that we can live radically healthier lives than people before us, but only by understanding how the body is set up biologically to age and decline.
Our reptilian brains
Dr. Lodge makes a strong case for a physically active life. He draws from cell physiology and evolutionary biology to explains how we are biologically programmed to react to the natural world around us. Our ‘physical’ brain, sometimes called the ‘primitive’ or ‘reptilian’ brain, is the part of our brain that ensures our survival and that of our species. Working on continuous autopilot, our ‘physical’ brain, explains Lodge, runs our metabolism, tissues, cells, chemicals and hormones, energy demands—every aspect of our physical being. But the catch is that our brains and bodies are not designed for modern life or fast food, couch sitting and endless screen time but for the times of hunting and gathering and surviving periods of food scarcity.
The authors of Younger Next Year for Women posit that women may be quicker than men to pick up on ‘creep’ or decline. Women tend to identify something that feels wrong and work to address it. Crowley and Lodge encourage women to inspire their husbands to join in with their fitness program – or else. If the husbands refuse, let these ‘dead weights’ go, the authors joke.
I am always happy when women and their partners, male or female, join up for a class. The fight against age or injury-related atrophy (creep, if you will) is one we will all share. An inactive lifestyle is hazardous to your health and, by extension, to the health of those close to you. Try out the weight training routines below alone or with a partner. To get stronger you need to feel your muscles working. Resist the urge to stay with light weights. Instead safely build up to heavier weights and use them often. Please remember that the information and exercises in the blogs and videos should not be a substitute for medical advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique situation.
Adapting Pilates for Our Longer Lives blog will return on March 3rd, 2021.