It’s no news that as we get older, we succumb to age-related illnesses and degeneration. And, with the average life expectancy increasing, there are more incidences of age-related illnesses than ever before. But what happens to our bodies as we age, and how does ageing affect our muscles and fitness?

Sarcopenia is the term used to describe the atrophy (degeneration) of muscle mass and quality with aging. But it’s not just our muscle mass that decreases. As we age, there is also reduction of ‘cell signalling,’ so the cells are more prone to dysfunction or disease. While this is happening, there’s also an increase in circulating TNF cytokines, the chemicals responsible for cell breakdown. All in all, ageing doesn’t stack things in our favour!

If we cruise through life without performing any resistance training (RT), we can expect – even from the age of 30 – to lose an average muscle mass of 250 g per year. And it gets worse. By the time we’re 50, we’ll be losing an average muscle mass of 500 g a year while simultaneously increasing fat mass. This reduction in strength starts the negative spiral of poor health, with an increase in frailty related injuries and a decreased functional capacity for everyday life – all of which makes it harder to lead an independent life – or a good-quality one.

So, how do we remedy this problem? Much with studies into children’s resistance training programs, it’s commonly believed that resistance training lacks efficacy and is unsafe in the elderly population. However, RT has been proven to be effective increasing muscle mass and strength, essentially reversing sarcopenia in the elderly.

RT has been proven to be very effective in increasing muscle mass and strength, essentially reversing sarcopenia in elderly. A study by Weiser and Haber published in 2007 looked at the effects of RT on adults 75 years and older. The 12-week intervention had numerous benefits on the trained group including:

  • A calculated reduction of 4 kg body fat per person
  • A calculated increase of 2.9 kg in muscle mass per person
  • A 15% increase in cycle fitness and 12% increase in VO2MAX
  • A maximal strength increase between 26 – 38%

All these occurred from just two (approximately one-hour) sessions a week!

A study published by Pearson and associates in 2002 found that 80-year-old strength trained individuals demonstrated similar levels of muscular power to that of 60-year-old untrained individuals.

Essentially, this suggests that strength training can potentially compensate for 20 years’ worth of sarcopenic decline!

A well-designed RT program for the elderly population can have drastic effects on their quality of life through various improvements in:

  • muscle strength, power, endurance and rate of force development
  • many neurological adaptations (muscle activation, motor control, coordination)
  • muscle size and architecture (fibre typing, pennation angles)

This improved muscle function translates to functional capacity, especially in the frail or very old individuals. One study by Fiatarone and associates in 1994 demonstrated the efficacy for RT in very old (>87 years) frail nursing home residents. They found a 28% increase in stair walking speed and a 12% increase in maximal walking speed.

The age-related decline in neuromuscular function can leave older individuals frail, highly fatigable with significant loss of independence. But the good news is this decline can be combatted effectively with resistance training and has been shown to reduce the expected degeneration and help to facilitate an improved quality of life.

This article was written by Jake Down.