Strong Medicine

Drama masksThe sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank;

William Shakespeare (‘As You Like It’ 1623)

Less than thirty years ago, we were still not too far removed from Shakespeare’s vision of old age. For many people, entering their sixties (our ‘sixth age’) was a time – long looked forward to – of ‘taking it easy’ after a lifetime of labor. It was expected, even natural, to gradually become less and less active…more comfortable with wearing slippers and loosely fitting pants (pantaloons) than tennis shoes and walking shorts.

Most people, and society in general, quietly accepted the loss of strength and muscle mass seen with aging, viewing their ‘shrunk shanks’ (weakened legs) with a combination of inevitability and resignation.

In the present day though we start to notice that loss of strength and muscle mass in a different way to that described by “The Bard’, above.

In modern times ordinary activities of daily living gradually become harder and harder to perform

Getting in and out of a bathtub or low chair
Lifting groceries into the trunk
Climbing stairs and hills
Even just walking short distances

If, as often happens, we then start to avoid or limit these activities, our quality of life becomes similarly limited. For example, daily walks may be shortened or missed because there are steps to negotiate or hills to climb, social activities may be avoided because of the travel involved. This increased inactivity can result in further reductions of both strength and endurance leading to even further loss of strength and independence – a kind of physiological self-fulfilling prophecy! Sound familiar?

This is still an all too common occurrence for men and women in their ‘second fifty years’ (or even earlier) and one that has been shown to pose a significantly increased risk for a whole host of health conditions that you never want to have!  Ever wonder why more than 90% of older adults suffer from at least one chronic disease such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, arthritis, etc.? The usual answer to this is “Oh it’s only to be expected, after all I am getting older”.

Research, however, says otherwise! Most chronic diseases – even falls – are linked to lack of activity, not aging, in and of itself! The single most important thing to know is that the single most important thing you can do to, preserve your function AND prevent disease is to intentionally maintain and improve your strength by including specific strengthening activities in your lifestyle.

“Regular strength training for older adults can safely increase strength and reduce disability while maintaining and improving independence, health and quality of life.”  

Not long ago, such a statement by a healthcare professional would have provoked skepticism among colleagues at the very least, and perhaps raised liability concerns. Even today, lingering doubts still exist in the minds of some physicians, caregivers, and society in general regarding the appropriateness of strength training for people in their ‘declining years’.

In some ways this is not surprising, considering that as late as the 1970’s scientific journals were still reporting that strength training was unsafe for older adults. Some studies even reported that it was not possible to increase strength after the age of sixty!

Attitudes to strength training are, gradually, becoming more positive.

What happened to cause this change? The answer is… persistent and curiosity-initiated research!

Scientists realized that many of the activities people were finding more difficult with age, were caused mainly by poor muscular strength and endurance  – and the search was on for safe and effective ways to improve strength in older adults.

The first high intensity studies of strength training with older adults were conducted in the US during the late 1980s and early 1990’s. Remarkable increases in strength – as much as 120% – were reported in as little as 12 weeks, with no sign of detrimental health events.

In the early 90s, I published the first high intensity strength training study with older adults in the UK, which also showed significant increases in strength and muscle mass. Since these early, pioneering studies, the safety and effectiveness of strength training for older adults is now widely reported in both the scientific literature and the commercial field.

Over the last 5-10 years, far wider benefits of strength training have come to light. These are not limited to physiology and function, but also include psychological, social, cognitive and quality of life factors.

Today, the following benefits of strengthening activities are well-established in the research arena, if not entirely in the general population

Benefits of Strength

The really good news is that these benefits can be achieved 2-3 times per week, in as little as 20 minutes per session! I will be writing more about the ‘How too’ in my next post.

The arc of history has turned gradually towards accepting strengthening activities as a vital part of active aging, although this news is still ‘new news’ for much of the population. I continue to smile whenever I read newspaper articles trumpeting the ‘latest research’ showing that strength training is safe and effective for older adults! This happens on a fairly regular basis. Where have these people been since the 1990’s?

In my next post I will talk about the ‘how to do it’ question, but for the present just know that there is Strong Medicine at your disposal – and in your own hands!

QUESTION: Now that you know the benefits. What else do you need to know to begin to get strong?

Be part of the conversation –  answer this question in the comments box below – or ask one of your own

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