How Weight Training Reverses The Aging Process & Why Everyone Needs To Lift Weights
Weight training is perhaps your best bet for reversing the aging process, or at the very least slowing it down as much as is humanly possible. Aging is essentially loss of proteins over time, weight training is about increasing protein cells in your body and as simple as this sounds, it’s the very basic premise behind the importance of weight training or any form of resistance exercise as a part of everyone’s fitness program. Cardiovascular exercise is great, yoga is a fantastic way to center and relax the mind, but when it comes to reversing the aging process and keeping you as strong and independent as possible for as long as possible, nothing beats weight training. Younger folks tend to not think about the aging process and doing things to reverse it, but the reality is that everyone reading this article right now is getting older and unfortunately most people don’t pay attention to the aging process until they start seeing tangible signs of the passage of time. At which point, weight training can help, but it is always best to incorporate some form of weight training in your regular routine at all time, before you start seeing Father Time’s effects on your body. Thanks to advances in medicine, improvements in living conditions and food availability, people are living longer than they ever did. So much so that by the year 2030 there will be more than twice the number of Americans over the age of 65 than there was in the year 2000. The problem is that living longer has little to do with having a better quality of life as you get older. Drugs can help extend your life in many ways but the only way to truly improve your health is to work for it, and the addition of a sound weight training program can add some truly good years to your life. Having been surrounded by bodybuilders for the past 40 years, I have seen first hand the benefits of weight training for those in their forties, fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, and in every case the men and women have lives that are exemplary compared to their peers who don’t lift weights. In this article we will highlight why everyone should consider incorporating weight training into their fitness routines as it can help you reverse many aspects of the aging process and create what gerontologists term “successful aging.” Which is defined as getting older with a low probability of disease, physical disability and maintaining high cognitive and physical function and having an active engagement with life in your later years.[3,4]
Unfortunately, here in the United States, the aging process is looked upon as a syndrome in need of “treatment” rather than a natural part of life that should be enjoyable to some extent. It’s a concept born from the experience of seeing the negative health outcomes of elderly men and women in this part of the world as in most cases the aging process is indeed a narrative of decline. The party line is that getting older means increased stored body fat in different parts of the body, significant loss of muscle mass, loss of muscle strength and balance to the point of infirmity. Getting older also means having to deal with the onset of metabolic disease which we erroneously associate with aging. While most of the population will indeed one day suffer from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and osteoporosis, the irony is that none of this is a natural part of getting older and is preventable. What is commonly perceived as an inevitable consequence of growing older is often the end result of a sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary habits. Elderly men and women in hunter gatherer societies and agricultural populations that live close to the earth with very active lifestyles have little incidence of metabolic disease and not nearly as much muscle loss as their Western counterparts. However, you don’t need to go join a tribe or leave town to live off the land in order to age gracefully as a proper diet and regular weight training will give you similar outcomes! Studies of older men and women who regularly engage in weight training do not suffer the same degrees of muscle loss, increased body fat, bone loss and metabolic disease as those who do not.  If this is the case, then why aren’t more people working out with weights and watching what they eat? It’s a difficult question to answer but part of the problem is that weight training is not as easy to do as getting on a treadmill or going for a run. Nor is it as promoted as other more trendy forms of exercise today like spin classes and dance based forms of exercise. Lack of knowledge is also a causative factor as because so many believe that aging inevitably comes with these infirmities, they fail to take the necessary steps to prevent them.
The Mechanisms Of Aging And How Weight Training Can Reverse It
The specifics of the aging process is relatively easy to understand. The number cells that make up your body are kept at a relatively steady number through a process called, mitosis, or cellular division, which is in turn matched matched by the number of cells that die. This state of balance (called homeostasis) is necessary for optimal health, however such equilibrium cannot be maintained indefinitely as if it could, we would live forever and never get older. You see, all animals have a limited number of times that they can produce new cells to replace the ones lost, which is called the Hayflick limit. As we get older and closer to that limit, senescence sets in, which is a decline in the ability of our bodies’ cells to divide. We don’t feel the effects initially as it usually starts in our early thirties and continues on throughout our lives where it can becomes more evident. One theory is that the everyday occurrence of cellular reproduction leads to cumulative DNA damage, and cells begin to die or not function correctly as a result. This process, called apoptosis, may sound awful, but is actually beneficial as it acts a way of ‘cleaning up’ the cells that don’t work well, which benefits the healthy remaining cells. Taken as a whole, aging is our bodies decline in being able to deal with the environmental stress that inevitably destroys cellular tissue. Maintaining a balance between cells lost and cells created eventually becomes more and more difficult until a point is reached where cell losses far exceeds cellular replenishment and in time the organism dies.
Weight Training Prevents and Can Reverse Loss Of Muscle Mass Due To Aging
Building muscle however through the use of a well executed weight training program of sufficient intensity is a way of increasing our bodies’ adaptive response to stress. As we get older one of the main aspects working against us from being as strong and muscular as we are in our younger years is a process called sarcopenia. Sarcopenia, which means literally ‘poverty of the flesh’, refers to the loss of skeletal muscle mass that comes with aging. We need muscle mass to be able to move and it is central to our ability to do just about all physical activity. As such, significant muscle mass losses can lead to loss of independence, overall weakness and frailty. For the average man or woman who does not engage in regular weight bearing activity, as much as half of total skeletal muscle mass is lost between the ages of 20 and 90 old years. Such drastic loss of muscle mass usually comes with an increase in overall body fat. Lean muscle mass is the most metabolically active tissue in our bodies, which means we burn the most calories maintaining it. Loss of muscle mass means a slowing down of overall metabolism and so if you consumed let’s say 2,000 calories everyday and your bodyweight was stable, eating that same amount of food would make gain excess body fat as your muscle mass drops over time. It’s why people complain of having a harder time staying lean as they get older, but is FAR less of an issue with older men and women who regularly train with weights as studies suggest that lack of exercise- or more specifically weight bearing resistance exercise is one of the overriding causes of sacropenia.
Weight Training Can Help You Maintain An Impressive Amount Of Muscle As You Get Older
So, it’s not a given that you will lose large amounts of muscle mass as long as you have some form of resistance exercise in your regime, as the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ certainly applies when it comes to muscle mass. That being said, my experience over the past three decades as a trainer has been that if you start weight training in your forties or early fifties, most people reach a stage where they have muscle mass and are far stronger in their fifties and forties than they were in their twenties if they didn’t weight train when they were younger. Among those who have lifted weights their entire lives, the results are even more impressive. While most of us might not want to be bodybuilders, the drug tested, natural bodybuilding world is a fascinating study of how the aging process can appear to be completely reversed. Unlike the non-tested shows where steroid use is rampant and younger athletes usually win, at the natural contests, the serial winners are usually between the ages of 40 to 55 years old. Not in their 20’s and not even in their thirties. You see, weight training is a progressive endeavor. The longer you do it, the more results you will get. That said, a young man or woman who might be blessed with amazing genetics still will not likely be as muscular and lean as an athlete with similar or even sub-par genetics who has been training for decades longer. How long it takes to achieve muscle definition and muscle mass is more about the time you put in rather than how old you are. A concept quite foreign to most given that almost all the fitness related marketing employs younger models and so the general public isn’t aware of how completely normal it is to look great in your fifties, as long as you just keep training.
There are a few public figures who have helped showcase just what can be accomplished in the later years such as the late Jack LaLanne, who pioneered the modern gym industry and was a model of fitness up until his death at 96 years old. I had the honor or meeting Jack when he was in his 80’s and I was quite impressed not only by his energy and vigor, but also that fact that he really seemed to be enjoying every second of life, a common attribute of those who make fitness a balanced part of their lives. There is also the inspiring Ernestine Shepherd, listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest bodybuilder of her time and who is quite a figure on the internet and social media. However, for every public figure there are hundreds of thousands of men and women training regularly who are up there in age but look truly inspiring! My friend and lifetime natural bodybuilder, the late great Kenny Hall started competing in his twenties and kept on winning titles for the next half a century. His greatest accomplishment was winning the winning such titles as Mr. Universe over-40 and Pro Mr. America over-50, all while being lifetime drug-free, but what amazed us all was that he was able to maintain a level of muscle mass and definition that allowed him to easily best competitors who were decades younger than he was up until he retired in his 70’s. Not so much because he thought he couldn’t keep going but because he wanted others to have a chance to win as well! Kenny passed away in his late 80’s and enjoyed quite a life thanks to the robust health that his weight training program gave him. But the positive effects of weight training on aging are not just anecdotal, research shows that those who engage in intense weight training over the course of their lifetime can demonstrate physical qualities and abilities equal to if not exceeding that of untrained individuals in their twenties while well into their fifth decade of life.[6,7] Short term studies also show that resistance exercises like weight training increases the ability of our muscles to synthesize proteins and in so doing minimizes the advent of skeletal muscle decline over the years. 6,7]
How Weight Lifting Reverses Osteoporosis
As we get older it is not only our muscles that get significantly weaker without added physical activity but also our bones. Increased bone porosity and reduction in bone mass can lead to the debilitating effects of osteoporosis. Which as we know can be both reversed and prevented by the implementation of weight bearing activities such as weight training.  (Read my article- How Weight Training Prevents And Reverses Osteoporosis.)
Weight Training As A Tool For Successful Aging
There are some aspects of the aging process that are beyond our control. With the advance of years comes a natural decrease in the speed of nerve conduction, reduction in peak cardiovascular ability as well as a decline in kidney and other organ functions. As mentioned earlier, our cells have a limited number of reproductions over the course of our lifetimes and as you get older the motor units (motoneurons) in your fast twitch muscles begin to die. It isn’t something you notice even though it starts fairly early in your late twenties and thirties as our bodies have a remarkable way of compensating. For example, the muscles in your leg might have approximately 250 motor units and each motor unit (the technical term is motoneuron) has as many as a thousand muscle fibers under its control. This ratio of motor units to muscle fiber is known as an innervation ratio and in this case would be 1,000 muscle fibers per motoneuron.
Over time, the 250 motor units in your leg muscle may drop by as much as half to 125 muscle fibers by the time you are 70 years old. Now you would think that this would make you only half as strong as you were before, but it isn’t that straightforward. We lose muscle fibers at a much slower rate than motor units, so you would have only lost 10% of the muscle fiber in that leg muscle by the age of 70. However, the remaining 125 motor units will sprout new branches to the muscle fibers that have lost their motor units to activate them and do more work than they did before. As a result, there is a higher innervation ratio. In this example it could be a total of 1,500 muscle fibers per motoneuron as our motor units take control of more muscle fibers as a way of helping us retain our strength as we get older. (And some would argue that it sets the stage for greater absolute strength.)
Our nervous system and the mechanisms behind muscle contraction slow down over time as part of the aging process as well. Despite these natural declines, regular resistance type exercise and an overall active lifestyle can help minimize and offset any adverse consequences form these changes in our bodies. As such the importance of building as much muscle as possible in order to live longer becomes readily apparent as the more muscle mass you are able to build up, the more strength, coordination and motor skills you will have as you get older and the longer it will take before you see a decline in ability. Keep in mind that without the use of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, even the most genetically gifted men and women don’t build that much muscle. The lowland gorilla look that so many associate with weight training is sadly a reflection of drug use more so than weight training as you’ll never look like the monsters you see in the magazines if you train naturally. A point that is sadly lost on sadly on the millions of women who pursue aerobic type exercises and lower impact activities like yoga out of a misplaced fear of developing man-sized muscles. The sad part is that because women have naturally lower muscle and bone mass than men, weight training is even more important for them as they get older. (See my article on Should Women Weight Train Like Men)
Hormone Replacement Isn’t The Answer
Our hormones also play a role in the reduction of our muscle mass as we get older. Testosterone, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) help our bodies’ build and maintain muscle mass but there is a marked reduction in production as we get older. High intensity weight training has been shown to increase all three hormones [9,10,11] naturally and within standard human parameters. It might sound like a good idea to forgo weight training and instead turn to hormone replacement therapies but research shows that this reduction in hormones may be a key mechanism that allows us to live longer. Mammalian models with reduced growth hormone (GH) and/or IGF-1 appear to live longer [12,13] and while the administration of testosterone replacement therapy for men has become a lucrative and fast growing industry here in the United States, presently available data does not justify the broad use of such hormones for anti-aging purposes.[14,15] With most of our medical anti-aging focus resting on the shoulders of pharmaceutical companies trying to find a pill form solution to the combat the effects of the march of time, comparatively little is invested in researching protocols that are far less potentially lucrative such as weight training.
Effects Of A Lifetime Of Weight Lifting On the Aging Process
The science of Gerontology has only just started to pay attention to the amazing examples set by those engaged in a lifetime of weight training and drug free bodybuilding, and research reveals that involvement in such activities can “create possibilities for people to age positively and reconstruct what aging “normally” means.”[2,16,17,18] Such studies also highlight the self-fulfilling prophecy that our society’s acceptance of advancing age as a time of disengagement, dysfunction and disease goes a long way in our not taking action to change this. For as long as we perceive aging as a downward trajectory of physical and mental deterioration, we are doomed to experience it as such. One of the common attributes of men and women involved in weight training activities over the course of their lives and who exhibit remarkable physicality into the later sixth decades of life is what was termed a ‘mondadic styled’ body. In short, they focused on who they were and what they were doing as opposed to being influenced by what society expected them to be. Or by the examples of their peers aged in keeping with narrative of rapid decline and the popular skinny fat look of today. Without turning to hormonal solutions that can cause more problems than they solve, these men and women centered themselves on following a healthy. One that allows them to significantly offset the impact of aging and achieve what we are all looking for; namely twilight years that aren’t defined by disease and disability but instead are filled with engagement with life on all levels. You don’t need drugs or DeLeon’s fabled fountain of youth, you just need to make weight training and a proper diet part of your life at all times. When is the best time to start your workout? The answer is right now as we are all getting older!
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References For How Weight Training Reverses The Aging Process & Why Everyone Needs To Lift Weights
1. Administration on Aging- Dept of Health & Human Services.
2. Phoenix C, Smith B. Telling a (Good) Counter story of Aging: Natural Bodybuilding Meets The Narrative of Decline. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci 2011
3. Rowe JW, Kahn RL. “Human ageing: usual and successful”. Science 1987
4. Rowe JW, Kahn RL. “Successful ageing”. Gerontologist 1997
5 Abate M, Di Iorio A, Di Renzo D, Paganelli R, Saggini R, Abate G. “Frailty in the elderly: the physical dimension”. Eura Medicophys 2007
6. Hasten, Debbie L; Pak-Loduca J, Obert KA, Yarashski KE .”Resistance exercise acutely increases MHC and mixed muscle protein synthesis rates in 78–84 and 23–32 yr olds”. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2000
7. Yarasheski, Kevin E. “Aging, and Muscle Protein Metabolism”. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2003
8. High-intensity resistance training and postmenopausal bone loss: a meta-analysis. Martyn-St James M, Carroll S. Osteoporosis Int. 2006
9. Pak-Shan Leung, William J. Aronson, Tung H. Ngo, Lawrence A. Golding, and R. James Barnard. Exercise alters the IGF axis in vivo and increases p53 protein in prostate tumor cells in vitro. TRANSLATIONAL PHYSIOLOGY 2004
10. Zmuda JM, Thompson PD, Winters SJ. Exercise increases serum testosterone and sex hormone-binding globulin levels in older men. Metabolism. 1996
11. Godfrey RJ, Madgwick Z, Whyte GP. The exercise-induced growth hormone response in athletes. Sports Med. 2003
12.Berryman DE, Christiansen JS, Johannsson G, Thorner MO, Kopchick JJ. Role of the GH/IGF-1 axis in lifespan and healthspan: lessons from animal models. Growth Horm IGF Res. 2008
13.Carter CS, Ramsey MM, Sonntag WE. A critical analysis of the role of growth hormone and IGF-1 in aging and lifespan.Trends Genet. 2002
14. Heutling D, Lehnert H.[Hormone therapy and anti-aging: is there an indication?].Internist (Berl). 2008
15. Kliesch S[Hormone therapy in the aging male. Estrogen, DHEA, melatonin, somatotropin]. Urologe A. 2004
16. Dionigi, R. Competing for life, older people, sport and ageing. Verlag, Germany: VDM Verlag. 2008
17. Grant, B. C. ‘You’re never too old’: Beliefs about physical activity and playing sport in later life. Ageing and Society 2001
18. Phoenix, C. Auto-photography in aging studies: Exploring issues of identity construction in mature bodybuilders. Journal of Aging Studies 2010