You’re Never Too Old to Start Weight Training

February 3, 2015 Updated: February 3, 2015

The older I get, the more I realize how important weight training is. It now makes up the majority of my workouts, and if you’re middle-aged or beyond, I encourage you to make this a regular part of your exercise routine.

The fact is, even though you might not care as much about how your muscles look as you did in your 20s (but then again, you might!), you certainly care about how your muscles function.

Without weight training, your muscles will atrophy and lose mass. Age-related loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia, and if you don’t do anything to stop it you can expect to lose about 15 percent of your muscle mass between your 30s and your 80s.

Slow Down Muscle Loss and Boost Your Strength Three-Fold

Muscle loss happens gradually, so you probably won’t notice it occurring at first. But by the time you’re in your 70s, when sarcopenia tends to accelerate, you might start to feel weaker and find you can’t do things, physically, that you used to do. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM):

A gradual loss in muscle cross-sectional area is consistently found with advancing age; by age 50, about ten percent of muscle area is gone. After 50 years of age, the rate of loss accelerates significantly.

Muscle strength declines by approximately 15 percent per decade in the sixties and seventies and by about 30 percent thereafter. Although intrinsic muscle function is reduced with advancing age, age-related decrease in muscle mass is responsible for almost all loss of strength in the older adult.”

No one wants to lose their strength or their ability to function independently. If you listen to Willie Murphy, the 77-year-old power lifter and grandmother in the video above, you’ll hear a first-hand account of what strength training can do for you as you get older.

What you’ll hear, overwhelmingly, is that it can not only help you feel stronger and healthier, but it can give you the ability to shovel your own snow, carry your groceries and pick up your grandchildren.

By helping you maintain your muscle mass and strength, strength training can, quite literally, give you the ability to keep on living. On the contrary, if you stop working your muscles, the consequences of sarcopenia are steep and include:

  • Increased risk of falls and fractures
  • Impaired ability to regulate body temperature
  • Slower metabolism
  • Loss in the ability to perform everyday tasks

Now, what do you have to gain by starting weight training – even if you’re already “older?” As ACSM explains:

Given an adequate training stimulus, older adults can make significant gains in strength. A two- to three-fold increase in strength can be accomplished in three to four months in fibers recruited during training in older adults. With more prolonged resistance training, even a modest increase in muscle size is possible.

…With increasing muscle strength come increased levels of spontaneous activity in both healthy, independent older adults and very old and frail men and women. Strength training, in addition to its possible effects on insulin action, bone density, energy metabolism, and functional status, is also an important way to increase levels of physical activity in the older adult.”

The Many Benefits of Weight Training for Older Adults

Weight training is important throughout your life, but in many ways it becomes even more important as you age. Even if you’re in your 90s, it’s not too late. One study found a group of nursing home residents with an average age of 90 improved their strength between 167 and 180 percent after just eight weeks of weight training. What are some of the other benefits?

  • Improved walking ability: After 12 weeks of weight training, seniors aged 65 and over improved both their leg strength and endurance, and were able to walk nearly 40 percent farther without resting.
  • Improved ability to perform daily tasks: After 16 weeks of “total body” weight training, women aged 60 to 77 years “substantially increased strength” and had improvements in walking velocity and the ability to carry out daily tasks, such as rising from a chair or carrying a box of groceries.
  • Decreased risk of falls: Women between the ages of 75 and 85, all of whom had reduced bone mass or full-blown osteoporosis, were able to lower their fall risk with weight training and agility activities.
  • Relief from joint pain: Weight training strengthens the muscles, tendons and ligaments around your joints, which takes stress off the joint and helps ease pain. It can also help increase your range of motion.
  • Improved blood sugar control: Weight training helps to control blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. It can also reduce your type 2 diabetes risk; strength training for at least 150 minutes a week lowered diabetes risk by 34 percent compared to being sedentary.

Weight training can also go a long way to prevent brittle bone formation, and can help reverse the damage already done. For example, a walking lunge exercise is a great way to build bone density in your hips, even without any additional weights. Strength training also increases your body’s production of growth factors, which are responsible for cellular growth, proliferation, and differentiation. Some of these growth factors also promote the growth, differentiation, and survival of neurons, which helps explain why working your muscles also benefits your brain and helps prevent dementia.