Maintaining muscle strength through regular exercise as we age can help combat natural muscle loss, or sarcopenia.
By Joan Pagano
Sarco-What? Sarcopenia is the natural loss of muscle strength and function that occurs with aging. If you are over 40, you are already experiencing creeping muscle loss. Is it reversible? Yes—but only with an appropriate exercise program.
Medical and pharmaceutical initiatives are under way to address the issue of muscle loss, including research into techniques for diagnosing sarcopenia, nonsteroidal “muscle drugs” in the pipeline, and specialty food products to support muscle strength. But why would you want to take another pill or supplement when there is a safe, effective solution at hand? Experts say that the best approach to restoring or maintaining muscle strength is exercise, primarily strength training.
Sarcopenia is to the muscle what osteoporosis is to the bone, and strength training can be a remedy in both cases. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, women over 40 who lift weights can actually have better strength and bone density than women who are years younger.1
Strength training can turn back the clock. You can combat the effects of aging to look and feel younger. In her book Strong Women Stay Young (Bantam, 2005; $7.99), Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, a forerunner in researching the benefits of strength training for the over-40 population, writes, “After one year of strength training, women’s bodies were 15 to 20 years more youthful.”
If you are in your midforties, you may already feel like you have less energy and strength. It’s around this age that an inactive person begins to lose 10 percent of muscle mass per decade. Experts say that the loss accelerates after age 75, when an elderly person who doesn’t exercise loses 30 percent of muscle per decade.
The good news is that muscle mass and function can be regained at any age or fitness level. A study conducted at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University recruited 10 elderly volunteers of the average age of 90, all of whom had at least two chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Most relied on walkers or canes, and several had leg muscles so weak they couldn’t rise from a chair without using their arms.
The participants engaged in a progressive resistance-training program building to high-intensity strength training, using the same machines that 25-year-olds use in the gym. They worked out three days a week for eight weeks, using the heaviest weights they could lift in good form.
The results were astounding: muscle strength increased by 175 percent, walking speed and balance improved by 48 percent, and two of the volunteers discarded their canes. After returning to a sedentary lifestyle, however, participants lost 32 percent of maximum strength after only four weeks.2
Just imagine how strength training can help you manage the aging process if you start in your forties and stay strong with each passing decade. Being strong means you can be more independent and self-reliant at every age. When it comes to being physically active, weight training strengthens the muscles and joints, enhancing your aerobic workouts and sports activities. It makes you more resilient to illness and injury and less likely to suffer poor posture and back pain. It’s never too late to begin strength training, and the sooner you start, the longer you benefit. Ready to get started? Consider integrating the exercises included here to create a regular strength-training routine.
Top 10 At-Home Strength Exercises
Confused about how to get started lifting weights? Overwhelmed by all the choices of exercises and equipment? All you need for a full-body strength-training workout are two sets of dumbbells (one light and one 2 to 5 pounds heavier) and a sturdy chair. Perform one set of each of the exercises for 8 to 12 repetitions. Do the routine two to three times a week on non-consecutive days, allowing one day of rest in between.
These are the top 10 exercises to target all the major muscle groups.
- Squat: Stand in front of the chair with your legs parallel about hip-width apart. Shift your weight back on your heels. Bend your knees and reach back with your hips, lowering yourself toward the chair as if to sit down. If you are just beginning, go partway down and then squeeze the glutes in your buttocks to return to the start position. As you become more experienced, continue to bend your knees until you tap the edge of the chair with your hips. When you are ready, hold a weight in each hand, arms by your sides, palms facing in.
- Stationary Lunge. Stand with feet parallel. Take a giant step back with one leg. Keep your hips square to the front and your weight centered evenly between your legs. Bend both knees, keeping your front knee directly over the ankle and allowing the back heel to lift off the floor. Straighten both legs and return to start position. The motion is up and down, not forward and back. When you are ready, hold one heavy weight in the hand opposite the front leg.
- Calf Raise. Stand behind the chair, holding on for support, legs hip-width apart, feet parallel. Lift up on the balls of your feet as high as you can, then slowly lower your heels back to the floor and repeat without resting.
- One-Arm Lat Row. Place one hand and knee on the edge of the chair with your opposite foot on the floor. Lengthen your spine and keep your back perpendicular to the floor. Hold one heavy weight in your free hand, hanging directly below the shoulder. Draw your shoulder blade toward the spine; then bend your elbow, pulling the weight up to your waist, keeping your elbow close to your side. Release slowly and repeat. Do all reps, and then switch sides.
- Shoulder Raise. Stand with your legs hip-width apart, feet parallel. Hold a light weight in each hand, palms facing in. Pull your shoulder blades down and together. Lift both arms out to the sides to shoulder level (no higher), with your elbows in line with your shoulders. Keep your arms straight but not stiff, with palms facing down at the top of the movement. Return to start and repeat.
- Biceps Curl. While standing, hold a heavy weight in each hand, palms facing forward. Bend your elbows to bring the weights up toward your shoulders; then slowly straighten your arms back to the starting position. Repeat without resting.
- Pushup. Kneel on the floor with your arms slightly forward of your shoulders and 3 to 4 inches wider than shoulder-width apart. Drop your hips and shift your weight forward so there is no direct pressure on your kneecaps. Your torso should form a straight line from shoulders to knees. Draw your shoulder blades down and together; then bend your elbows out to the sides to form a box as you lower your chest to the floor. Straighten your arms and push up. To make it easier, brace yourself on a kitchen counter, your body on a diagonal, and perform the same movement.
- Back Extension. Lying flat on your stomach, bend your arms and rest your forearms on the floor, palms down. Lengthen your spine by reaching forward with the top of your head. Draw the shoulder blades down and together. Lift your head and shoulders off the floor without using any strength from your arms. Keep your nose down. Pause, release down to the floor, and repeat without resting.
- Pelvic Tilt. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Rest your arms by your sides, palms up. Inhale to fill the belly with air. Exhale forcefully by pulling your abdominals in tight—think “belly button to spine”—pushing the air out. With one fluid motion, flatten your low back into the floor. Release and repeat.
- Crunch. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Cradle your head in your hands, elbows wide. Tighten the abdomen before you move, then lift the shoulders no more than 30 degrees off the floor (do not go into a full sit-up), drawing the ribs toward the pelvis. Keep your chin up. Pause at the top, then slowly lower your shoulders, but not your head, to the floor and repeat.
As you progress, you can add one to two sets of each exercise, using heavier weights and incorporating new exercises. Remember that you should periodically change your routine to keep your muscles stimulated.
© Copyright 2014 Joan L. Pagano. All rights reserved.
- Nelson ME, Fiatarone MA, Morganti CM, Trice I, Greenberg RA, Evans WJ. Effects of high-intensity strength training on multiple risk factors for osteoporotic fractures: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association.1994;272(24):1909-14.
- Fiatarone MA, Marks EC, Ryan ND, Meredith CN, Lipsitz LA, Evans WJ. High-intensity strength training in nonagenarians: Effects on skeletal muscle. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1990;263(22):3029-34.
The range of opportunities to engage in exercise today is extensive. From an explosion in running and walking events and training plans aimed at women, to an ever-growing number of fitness classes—think yoga, Pilates, Zumba, spinning—and a boom in high-intensity offerings like boot camps and CrossFit training, there is no end to the potential to participate. Amid all of these options, sometimes it’s important to go back to the basics, to dig in and understand the foundation of the exercises you’re engaged in, and to learn the why and how of your body’s physical abilities.
Joan Pagano’s Strength Training Exercises for Women: Tone, Sculpt, and Stay Strong for Life (DK, 2014; $22.95) provides welcome insight into the value of consistent, careful strength training as an essential practice for healthy aging. The book offers easy-to-follow descriptions of key strengthening exercises, accompanied by excellent photos that show the progression of each move (and modifications for various fitness levels), and is packed with valuable information about form, equipment, and creating effective programs.
While exercise trends may come and go, this book is a go-to guide for women that will remain a trusted resource as they age, providing clear information about the value of strength and the lasting benefits in health and quality of life.