Strength for All

How much cash would you slap down for a magic pill that would grant you a lifetime of physical strength, vibrant good health, mental sharpness, and – that most prized possession – a good-looking body? Don’t bother answering, because you can win all these benefits and more without resorting to magic or medication. All you have to do is add a range of muscle-building exercises to your regular fitness regimen.

That may sound too good to be true, but medical researchers and exercise physiologists say the scientific evidence is clear that increasing your strength and muscle mass – at any age – is one of the keys to long-term health, mobility and a trim figure.

The phrase “at any age” may surprise you. Because if you peek into gyms and fitness clubs you might think that hefting barbells and dumbbells is largely the province of teenage boys and young men lusting after more and bigger muscles. Yet muscle building is arguably more important for men and women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond than it is for their younger counterparts.

No Bulk

The thought of adding muscle and bulk may frighten women not aiming for a career in professional wrestling, but increasing your lean body mass doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to develop bulging muscles. In fact, researchers say that failure to maintain adequate muscle mass is a sure way of getting fatter while compromising your health – no matter how much you diet or rely on aerobic exercise. Here’s why: Lean body mass is crucial for maintaining a relatively high metabolism, the rate at which the body burns calories. Without adequate muscle on your frame, your metabolism will slow down; you’ll burn fewer calories and gain excessive body fat even if you reduce your food intake.

Dieting makes this situation even worse because sedentary dieters invariably lose muscle mass along with fat, thus compounding the problem by turning weak overweight people into weak thin people. In fact, by the time most sedentary Americans reach 65, they have typically lost 10 percent to 12 percent of their muscle mass and 30 percent to 40 percent of their strength. Frightening to consider, but 10 years later, about 25 percent of average American males and two thirds of the females won’t be able to lift more than 10 pounds. They will also be more likely to have brittle bones and poor balance, making them susceptible to falls and hip fractures, the leading cause of hospitalization among elderly Americans.

Change for the Better

Fortunately, losing muscle and strength isn’t inevitable or even irreversible. Most of the changes associated with aging – chiefly loss of strength, bone density and mobility – are due to inactivity and poor food choices rather than the passage of time. Which means the sooner you start a lifetime muscle-building program, the better.

Studies conducted with men and women from 60 to 90 years of age show that previously untrained people could grow muscle as effectively as young people doing the same amount of exercise. Even more encouraging, most out of shape people embarking on a strength-training program can double or even triple their strength over a three-month period.

You can’t do this by relying solely on aerobic exercises like brisk walking, swimming or even running marathons. Sixty-five percent of the body’s muscle mass is above the hips, so cardio workouts, while important, have little impact on lean-muscle growth. In one study, for example, people who only did aerobic exercise for two months gained no muscle and lost an average of 3 pounds of fat. But study participants who combined cardio workouts with strength training for eight weeks put on 2 pounds of muscle mass while shedding an average of 10 pounds of body fat.

You won’t have to spend hours in the gym every day to make impressive gains, but you will have to commit to relatively brief (30 to 60 minutes) and intense strength-training sessions two to three times a week. “Intense” means working at your near maximum on the last two or three repetitions of every exercise.

As the American College of Sports Medicine says in an official position paper, “when the intensity of the exercise is low, only modest increases in strength are achieved by older subjects.” Up the intensity, however, and “older men and women show similar or greater strength gains compared with young individuals as a result of resistance training.”

Alas, nothing can stop the aging process or the passage of time. But by following a program that includes a sensible diet, cardiovascular exercise and a program of muscle building, most people can prevent or delay the declines sedentary people are sure to suffer as they age. After all, if the 650 muscles in the human body could talk, they’d deliver a simple message: Use it or lose it.

Vic Sussman has been a Senior Editor at U.S.News & World Report, a columnist for The Washington Post, and a commentator for National Public Radio. His personal passion, however, has always been fitness, especially weight training. While in his 50s, he took 4th place in the 1998 National Masters Powerlifting Championships and set two Maryland Masters powerlifting records.

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