Patient Daily Living

Build Muscle To Increase Strength As You Age

By Julie Davis

Everyone over age 50 needs to participate in progressive resistance exercise to prevent muscle loss that can limit mobility and quality of life. 

Strength As You Age

According to a new study published in The American Journal of Medicine, older adults can fight the traditional muscle loss that comes with age and actually get stronger.

Normally, adults who are sedentary beyond age 50 can expect muscle loss of up to 0.4 pounds a year. "That only worsens as people age, but even earlier in adulthood—the 30s, 40s and 50s—you can begin to see declines if you do not engage in any strengthening activities," says Mark Peterson, PhD, a research fellow in the University of Michigan Physical Activity and Exercise Intervention Research Laboratory at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. These declines include vital everyday actions including being able to stand up from a chair, walk across the floor, climb a flight of stairs, shop at the grocery store—virtually anything that requires manipulating your own body mass through a full range of motions.

"Our analyses of current research show that the most important factor in somebody's function is their strength capacity," Dr. Peterson explains. "No matter what age an individual is, they can experience significant strength improvement with progressive resistance exercise even into the eighth and ninth decades of life. Resistance exercise is a great way to increase lean muscle tissue and strength capacity so that people can function more readily in daily life."

Progressive resistance training means that the amount of weight used along with the frequency and duration of training sessions is increased over time as you improve. Based on a review of published studies, the U-M researchers found that after an average of 18 to 20 weeks of progressive resistance training, an adult can add 2.42 pounds of lean muscle to their body mass and increases their overall strength by 25 to 30 percent.

Getting Started

Dr. Peterson suggests that everyone over age 50 strongly consider participating in resistance exercise. A good way to start, especially if you're relatively sedentary—and after getting the go-ahead from your doctor—is to use your body mass as the weight load for various exercises. Exercises that involve using your own body weight include squats, modified push-ups and lying hip bridges, as well as exercise disciplines that progress through a full range of motion, like Tai Chi, Pilates and Yoga (which also have great relaxation benefits).

To keep challenging yourself, after you can comfortably do these activities, consider moving to more advanced resistance training in a fitness facility. A certified trainer experienced in working with seniors and beginners can help design a program for you, make sure you're working with the correct form and help you prevent any injury.

Peterson's advice is to ask any prospective trainer whether they have this needed experience before you start working with them or join a gym. "Working out at age 20 is not the same as at age 70. A fitness professional who understands those differences is important for your safety. In addition, current recommendations suggest that an older individual participate in strengthening exercise two days per week," Peterson says. "Based on the results of our studies, I would suggest that be thought of as the minimum." However the same muscle groups cannot be work on consecutive days—they need rest between sessions, so every other day would be the goal. If you enjoy the workouts and going to a fitness facility becomes part of daily life, consider other types of workouts, like aerobics and/or stretching classes on the alternate days.

Making Progress

As resistance training progresses and weights and machines are introduced, Peterson recommends incorporating full body exercises and exercises that use more than one joint and muscle group at a time, such as the leg press, chest press and rows. These are safer and more effective in building muscle mass.

Continue to work with your trainer to make your routine more challenging as you progress. This not only helps your body develop further, but also keeps your head in the game.

- Written By

Julie Davis

Julie Davis is a food, health and wellness writer working within all print and digital formats. She has written over 50 books for readers of all ages, from best-selling women's interest titles in the areas of beauty, fitness and lifestyle to children's picture books. She currently writes for WebMD, the Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Adviser, the Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club, Bottom Line Personal and Bottom Line Health. Her past work includes features for Walgreens “The Thread” blog, Everyday Health, Livestrong, Healthgrades and HealthDay where she also conceptualized and scripted a 1,000-video lifestyle series.