Muscle loss is inevitable as you age, but adopting a regular weight training program can help slow the process.
You naturally lose muscle as you age, a condition called sarcopenia. After age 30, men begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass per decade, and most will lose about 30% over their lifetimes. But you have the power to change this — with weight training.
"Weight training is the best way to increase muscle mass lost due to aging and keep the muscle you have, and it's never too late to begin," say Vijay Daryanani, a personal trainer with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Outpatient Center.
Benefits of more muscle
You need added muscle now more than ever. Weaker muscle means less stamina, balance, and mobility, all of which can increase your risk of falls and fractures.
In fact, a 2015 report from the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research found that people with sarcopenia had 2.3 times the risk of having a low-trauma fracture from a fall, such as a broken hip, collarbone, leg, arm, or wrist.
"Added muscle from weight training also helps with everyday movements you take for granted, like reaching a high shelf or rising from a chair," says Daryanani.
Weight training offers other health benefits, too. For example:
Lower diabetes risk. A 2012 Harvard study of 32,000 men found that doing just 60 minutes of weight training per week could lower a man's risk for type 2 diabetes by 12% compared with doing none. Increase your weekly time to between 60 and 150 minutes, and you could lower your risk by 25%. The connection? Researchers found that weight training helps control weight and reduce blood sugar (glucose) levels. During a workout, your muscles rapidly use glucose, and this energy consumption continues even after you've finished.
Protection against osteoporosis. A study in the March 2017 issue of Bone found long-term weight training can increase bone density in men. In the study, men with low bone mass were split into two groups. One group performed regular weight training, such as lunges and squats using free weights. The other group performed various types of jumps. After a year, the researchers found that the men doing weight training had higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone associated with bone growth, compared with the men doing jumps.
Improved cognitive function. A study in the July 2017 issue of European Geriatric Medicine showed an association between increased upper-body and lower-body muscle strength and a greater ability to receive, store, and process information among older adults with an average age of 66.
Power up with protein
Most people probably get enough protein through their regular diet, but be mindful of protein intake when you're doing weight training, as your body uses the components of dietary protein to build muscle. A 2015 study in the journal Nutrients suggests a daily intake of 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for older adults who do weight training.
For example, a 175-pound man would need about 79 to 103 grams a day. If possible, divide your protein intake equally among your daily meals to maximize the body's ability to create muscle, says Vijay Daryanani, a personal trainer with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Outpatient Center. Also, consume about 20 to 40 of those daily grams after a workout to help with muscle repair. Here are some top protein sources to help you meet your daily quota:
Tips for weight training
Weight training commonly uses free weights like dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells, and weight machines to work specific muscle groups. There is no advantage to using one type of equipment over another, says Daryanani.
"Free weights require more control during an exercise's range of motion and make muscles work longer, but machines have a more controlled range of motion and offer greater safety."
Use the ones you feel most comfortable with and keep in mind that you can switch between free weights and weight machines, depending on the type of exercise and which muscles you are working.
Always check with your doctor before you begin any type of exercise program. After that, follow these tips to begin your weight training program:
Invest in a trainer. A licensed and credentialed trainer can design a personalized strategy to ensure you do the exercises you need for an all-around workout. A trainer also can teach you proper form and technique, like how to maintain good posture and alignment and how to lift in a smooth, controlled manner. This ensures you work muscles without wasted effort and helps reduce risk of injury. Trainers also can take videos or pictures of your workouts for reference. Some trainers have a specialty or advanced certification in working with older adults, so make sure to ask about this. After you learn from your trainer and gain confidence, you can then work out on your own.
Find the right balance. You want to strike a balance between adequate weight and number of repetitions (reps) during your workouts, according to Daryanani. He suggests trying to complete 10 to 12 reps of an exercise with enough weight so the last few are a challenge, but you are still able to keep proper form and technique. "Increase the weight as needed to ensure you keep that fine balance between reps and point of fatigue," he says. You should begin with two sets of each exercise and add a third as you improve.
Don't overdo it. A basic beginning weight training program consists of three workouts a week with a rest day between workouts. Each session should last 30 to 60 minutes. "There are no additional benefits for anything longer than that, and you risk possible injury," says Daryanani.
For more information on how to begin a weight training program and tips for finding licensed and certified trainers, read Strength and Power Training for Older Adults from Harvard Medical School at health.harvard.edu/spt.
You need to be careful with weight training if you've had surgery on your knee or hip or suffer from arthritis. "You may have to modify certain exercises like knee extensions, squats, or any movement that bends the hips farther than a 90° angle," says Vijay Daryanani, a personal trainer with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Outpatient Center. People with arthritis may need to rely more on weight machines that require less grip strength, and take more rest breaks between sets. Let your trainer know of any limitations you have, so he or she can modify your routine as needed.
Image: © XiXinXing/Thinkstock
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.