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Should You Really Be Lifting As You Age?

Although our society has gotten better about emphasizing the importance of exercise as we age, there’s still a stigma that weight training is only for young people.

In fact, the older people get, the less likely they are to include weight lifting as part of their fitness routine. The most common reasons I’ve heard of for not engaging in weight training programs are:

1. I can’t do it anymore, it’s a young person’s sport.

2. I’m too old, I don’t want to get hurt.

3. I’d rather swim or walk for exercise, it’s easier on my joints.

While all of these reasons are valid (to an extent) and I understand why these misconceptions are so prevalent, I do want to emphasize that these reasons aren’t very good ones.

I can’t do it anymore, it’s a young person’s sport. If I had a nickel for every time I heard this from patients, family, friends, and acquaintances… I understand that on an individual basis, you may be dealing with acute or chronic injuries that prevent you from doing things you used to. We’ve all been there and we’re all going to go through it at some point. But resorting to using that excuse is simply an excuse. Using your age as a reason to not get stronger is the worst reason there is. Here’s why.

As we age, we become prone to certain musculoskeletal disorders and diseases. One of the most common is osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease process that results in reduction of bone mass because the rate of bone destruction is higher than bone formation. This may be due to various factors such as hormonal deficiencies (e.g. menopause), nutritional deficiencies (e.g. inadequate calcium, excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption), decreased physical activity especially with mechanical loading, medications (e.g. corticosteroids), and other risk factors. Although some of these factors are naturally occurring, some of these may be self-inflicted.

Most people think, oh I’ll be fine. It won’t happen to me. I truly hope for the best for everyone, but stats show that roughly 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis, with another 34 million with low bone density, or osteopenia. Of these stats, 80% are women, and approximately 1/3 will experience orthopedic problems due to osteoporosis. These orthopedic problems include increasing your risk of fractures in your spine, hips, arms and wrists.

To make things even more shocking, bone loss begins at ages 30-35 in women and 50-55 in men at a rate of about 1% per year. For women, once you hit menopause, bone loss accelerates to roughly 3-5% per year for 3-5 years. Knowing these facts, you can see how women make up roughly 80% of those suffering from osteoporosis or osteopenia. Not only do women experience bone loss much sooner than men, women also experience it at an accelerated rate once postmenopausal. That’s why, as much of an advocate as I am for everyone to incorporate some from of weight lifting into their exercise routine, it is especially crucial for women to do so to slow the process of bone loss.

I’m too old, I don’t want to get hurt. I completely understand the fear of starting a lifting program at a later age, but I’d like to reduce that fear and misconception that you are required to perform olympic lifts to gain any benefit of a lift program. Your body is extremely resilient, and if you start slow and easy, and begin a lifting program under supervision and from proper coaching personnel, you will not get hurt.

Age is and should never be your barrier to entry when it comes to weight training. Especially with musculoskeletal diseases waiting for us if we don’t start the process of mitigating them, some form of weight training should be prioritized in your current exercise routine.

I also want to note that you don’t have to lift 2+ plates on each side to gain benefits. If your new weight lifting program is challenging, you are reaping the benefits of strength training and mechanical loading even if you’re just lifting light dumbbells or the barbell.

Lastly, I’d rather swim or walk for exercise, it’s easier on my joints. As much as I love both those forms of exercise, and agree 100% that swimming and walking are much easier on the joints, I do still believe it’s important to add some form of strength/ lift program. Even if it’s with light weights.

The problem for those who only swim is that swimming is a completely non-weight bearing sport. If all you do is swim for exercise (sure, your heart, lungs, and muscles will be in great shape), you still run the risk developing osteopenia and/or osteoporosis. This is because you’re still lacking the component of mechanical loading in your workout. You need mechanical loading and compression into your bones in order for bone formation to occur, and to slow the process of bone loss. Without mechanical loading, you will still risk developing osteopenia and/or osteoporosis as you age, and risk fractures.

Although walking is slightly better than swimming because you’re exercising against gravity and with your body weight, it still may not be enough to mitigate your risks of developing these bone diseases. That’s because your body adapts to the amount of mechanical force placed on your joints on a daily basis. When your body adapts, the rate of bone formation slows compared to the rate of bone reabsorption and destruction. The amount of mechanical force exerted into your bones may not be enough to initiate or continue bone formation. That’s why adding even a light strength program can be significantly helpful in maintaining bone health in the long run.

The fact is, normal aging-related diseases can be mitigated, or the process of acquiring these diseases can be slowed if we take care of our bodies sooner than later. My goal isn’t to frighten you, but to educate you so that you have the knowledge and tools to combat some of the diseases we may all eventually encounter with normal aging.

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