Muscle strength is one of the keys to healthy aging. But after we achieve peak muscle mass in our early 30s, it’s a slow march downhill from there. If we are sedentary as we age, we become frail, we start to hurt, we lose independence, and our lives become less satisfying.
But old age is not necessarily analogous to weakness, physical decline and lack of vigor. There is a solution to the seemingly inevitable problems of frailty as we age. In fact, contrary to modern thought, it is possible to age well, remaining independent and healthy with few disabilities. You can sidestep or even reverse frailty by beginning a well-rounded fitness program.
Frailty Leads to Functional Decline
flof in medical jargon means “found lying on the floor.” The British Geriatrics Society says it’s a common expression for ambulance attendants or care staff who find seniors crumpled up on the ground after they have fallen and suffered a head injury or a broken hip. For frail elderly people, it’s an accident waiting to happen that leaves them under the unforgiving lights of the local hospital.
Frailty due to muscle loss (sarcopenia) is becoming increasingly common. Roughly 15 percent of Americans age 65 and older suffer from the condition, and 45 percent are considered pre-frail. Chronically feeble seniors cannot lift even a 10-pound bag of groceries or walk a quarter mile. As age increases, rates of frailty also increase—to 1 in 4 for those older than 84 (HopkinsMedicine.org).
According to the Administration on Aging, there will be a frailty explosion by 2020, with more than 6 million Americans over age 85 and 55 million over age 65. By 2030, these numbers will have more than doubled in a 30-year period.
Many seniors face a perfect storm of falls, incident disability, hospitalization and death. Loss of muscle affects balance and tensile bone strength; it can also mean falls causing hip and back fractures. Frailty can cause everyday activities, such as getting out of a chair, to be painful or even impossible, leading to dependency on others, social isolation and depression (aginginmotion.org).
Strength Training: Natural Medicine
From the time you are born to around the time you turn 30, your muscles grow larger and stronger. The National Academy of Sports Medicine says that this trend starts to reverse after about age 35, as we lose 5 percent to 10 percent of our muscle mass each decade unless we engage in regular physical activity to prevent it.
This point is critical because muscle matters in all we do: Less muscle means less strength and mobility.
The best prevention is exercise. While cardiovascular training is important in a balanced fitness plan, the primary treatment for muscle loss is resistance training or strength training.
The more muscle is retained, the more obvious the benefits. The Journal of Aging and Health revealed that seniors who strength trained at least twice per week increased overall strength by 113 percent, significantly improving gait velocity and stair-climbing ability after just 16 weeks. Strength training also acts as a natural antidote to many detrimental conditions. Long-term benefits include an astounding 41 percent lower odds of cardiac death and 19 percent lower odds of dying from cancer. More importantly, it decreases odds of dying early from any cause by 46 percent (Futurity.org).
It’s an uncomplicated formula that helps the body to thrive, but many seniors do not take advantage of it and suffer unnecessary consequences. About 28 percent of Americans (31 million adults) age 50 and over not only fail to exercise but move no more than necessary to get by in life, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Exercise: The Frailty Antidote
How much exercise do you need to benefit a frail body? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends three to four exercise sessions per week, each lasting 20 to 30 minutes.
Functional fitness is the best way for seniors to stay fit and active as it focuses on multi-joint activity and can be tailored for your specific condition. Eldergym.com provides excellent free online resources, such as strengthening and stretching exercises, including pictures and videos, for seniors.
If you have wear and tear on your body or are experiencing joint pain, you may benefit from additional help with a personal trainer to create a safe exercise regimen based on your fitness level.
Even older people suffering from osteoporosis can strengthen themselves: Resistance training is considered the gold standard for this situation. Brad Schoenfeld, an assistant professor of exercise science at New York City’s Lehman College, says the “load” this form of training puts on bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments actually counteracts bone loss by stimulating the development of cells that strengthen bones (Time.com). The long-term benefits of resistance training are a seminal part of general health and well-being for seniors, improving almost every health condition.
Of course, there’s a catch: You need to get moving and keep moving. If you don’t yet lift weights, start now. Weight-bearing exercise, along with an adequate amount of healthy food, will go a long way toward preventing a rapid physical decline as you age. Growing old may be inevitable, but growing frail is not.