Many people think that the effects of aging are inevitable. Belly fat, muscle loss, saggy skin, and weaker bones are accepted as an unfortunate part of getting older. Disease and physical pain are considered par for the course.
In fact, the proper training program can prevent the physical and mental deterioration of aging, keeping your heart in top shape, your muscles defined, your body lean, and your brain sharp. Not only can exercise strengthen your heart, muscles, lungs, and skeleton, but it is by far the best total body anti-aging tool available.
Better than supplements, drugs, plastic surgery, or nutrition, exercise has the capacity to target tissues (muscle, ligaments, skin), brain cells, DNA, and genes, to keep you looking young and feeling energized for years to come.
This article is going to dig into the science of how exercise counters aging by looking at five of the most powerful benefits. We’ll finish up with tips for getting anti-aging benefits out of your training program.
Benefit #1: Maintain Muscle & Strength
Muscle and strength follow the principle of “use it or lose it.” In fact, scientists think that, “sarcopenia,” which is the age-related decline in strength and muscle mass is due to disuse of the neuromuscular system, not to aging.
By establishing the correct training habits, you can maintain your muscle and strength throughout your life. Even if you belatedly adopt a training program in your later years, it’s possible to regain previously lost muscle and ward off the negative effects of years of inactivity.
Strength equals longevity. Studies repeatedly show a close association between how strong you are and how long you will live. For example, a 2005 study found that there was a close association between the degree of strength in the quadriceps and risk of mortality. Scientists gathered a population of elderly men and women and found that those with the strongest legs had the lowest risk of dying over a 6-year period. Conversely, those with the weakest legs had the highest mortality risk.
One explanation is that as strength decreases, risk of falling increases. Fractures in the elderly often start a downward health spiral ending in mortality. For example, statistics in the UK show that 33 percent of people who fracture a hip in the UK die within 12 months.
Another factor is muscle. One of the strongest predictors of longevity is how much muscle you have. Not only is muscle mass in the lower body linked with having less belly fat (the dangerous kind that is inflammatory and raises risk of heart disease), but it is also associated with the ability to survive cancer and other diseases. For instance, in a new study, patients with kidney disease (who suffer from nutritional problems that can impede the maintenance of muscle mass), there was a consistent association between quantity of muscle mass in the quadriceps and risk of death over a 4-year period.
There are several reasons that muscle has a protective effect against aging. Muscle tissue is a major metabolic organ. It is a major consumer of glucose (blood sugar), so lack of muscle means the body won’t cope well with the surge of glucose into the blood after high-carbohydrate meals. Over time, poor glucose tolerance is associated with inflammation, insulin resistance, and diabetes. Muscle is also the storage site for amino acids—the building blocks of protein. If you have low muscle mass, when you become ill, you will have fewer reserves to call upon.
#2: Leaner Body Composition & Better Metabolism
One of the biggest myths of fitness is that muscle turns into fat. Not so! To sustain muscle, you need to “overload” it by performing activity you’re not accustomed to, either by lifting weights or performing forceful muscle contractions through sprinting or isometric holds (like a plank). Aerobic exercise like jogging or walking leads to muscle loss over the long-term because it doesn’t stimulate muscle sufficiently.
So, as people age and they become increasingly inactive, muscle tissue is degraded and lost, triggering a cascade of harmful metabolic changes:
Cells become less sensitive to the hormone insulin and the body ends up spending more time in fat storage mode.
The body is not able to use fatty acids as effectively. This leads to inflammation and the development of atherosclerosis, or plaque deposition and hardening of the arteries.
Fat gain occurs because the loss of muscle and inactivity lead your metabolism to drop so that your body burns fewer calories daily. The result is an energy imbalance (you’re eating more calories than you’re expending), so that you gain body fat.
The proper training program counteracts the age-related decrease in metabolism because active muscle is “thirsty” for calories in the form of glucose. In addition, muscle contractions automatically sensitize the muscle tissue to insulin. Fat burning increases and the body uses fatty acids for energy.
Growth hormone, which is released in metabolically stressful situations such as during strength or interval training, enhances the fat burning effect, while improving muscle mass. Finally, you get an afterburn effect whereby the body will increase the amount of calories it burns in the 24-hour recovery period post-workout as it restores your homeostasis in cells and tissues throughout the body.
#3: Better Cognition & Reduced Risk of Dementia
People rarely think of the brain as a target for improvement with physical activity. But emerging research links exercise to less depression, better memory, and quicker learning. For example, in one study, participants who performed a sprint interval workout improved their recall of new vocabulary by 20 percent compared to a control group that did no exercise. Researchers think intense exercise can reduce memory loss by raising the adrenaline hormones that stimulate the brain, while also boosting function of neurotransmitters like dopamine.
Exercise can also reduce the risk of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, which characterized by the deposition of proteins in the brain—similar to plaque that builds up in the arteries and leads to heart disease. Cognitive decline occurs over many years as the structure and function of the brain deteriorate leading to the gradual loss of memory.
Studies show that in people who have a genetic predisposition to develop Alzheimer’s, exercise has a protective effect, allowing for better metabolism of fat and glucose in the brain, reducing the deposition of harmful plaque buildup.
#4: Increased Bone Density
After age 35, there is a decline in bone mass of about 1 percent a year. Women going through menopause lose the most bone, however, men are also at risk of bone loss and osteoporosis, a condition that is linked with a huge increase in fracture risk.
Most doctors try to prevent bone loss in aging patients with calcium supplements or prescription drugs. Instead, they should prescribe a strength training program because studies show that overloading the bone with strenuous loads is the best way to build bone in young and old people.
Although any weight bearing exercise such as running or stair climbing will help slow bone loss (cycling and swimming are no good because they reduce the mechanical loading on the skeleton), to stimulate a bone building effect, you need to be loading the hip and spine with weights you are unaccustomed to. For example, squats and overhead presses are two of the best exercises for building bone.
One study of elderly women who did a moderate intensity strength training program found that they gained 1 percent of bone density compared to a control group that lost 2 percent of bone strength. This is a great start, however a case study found that two women who competed in powerlifting for over 20 years (lifting near maximal loads) had stronger bones than women who were 25 years younger and at the peak of bone mineral density.
Naturally, base levels of strength are necessary to be able to lift heavy loads, but the key is to progress in a sequential way instead of relegating seniors to training programs that are not intense enough to elicit the same health adaptations that a properly designed training program can provide.
#5: Less Stress & Better Mental Outlook
One of the most interesting anti-aging effects of exercise is how it influences hormone balance, stress response, and mood. Depression is a common aspect of aging due to decrease in brain transmitters like serotonin and dopamine that help us feel upbeat and motivated. Aging is also typified by an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and drop in key hormones such as testosterone and estrogen that impact mood, body composition, and sex drive.
Surprisingly, a sedentary lifestyle exacerbates the release of stress hormones that we experience with aging. You might not think that sitting on the couch would be stressful, but the body is not supposed to be inactive and it responds with an excessive cortisol response.
Studies show that starting a strength training or interval program will stimulate the neuromuscular system and reset the hypothalamic-pituitary axis that regulates the release of cortisol, testosterone, and estrogen. The effect is better fat burning, improved muscle mass, increased cognitive function, greater energy levels, and a better ability to handle the challenging parts of life that trip us up.
How To Get Started?
Conventional advice tells older individuals to perform aerobic exercise like walking or biking because it trains the heart and improves blood pressure. The most important thing is to choose a form of exercise that makes you happy so that you enjoy it and stick with it.
With that in mind, we recommend strength training as a top priority because you will get more out of your efforts than with a strict aerobic program. This doesn’t mean you can’t do aerobic exercise as well. It’s just that there are some drawbacks to doing aerobic exercise alone that strength training can counteract.
For example, strength training overloads the muscles so that they increase in size and strength. whereas aerobic forms of activity are associated with muscle loss over time. Additionally, strength training builds bone, improves hormone balance, boosts cognition, enhances coordination and reflexes, reduce risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, and burns body fat, while maintaining lean muscle mass.
In designing your training program, the first step is to determine how often, how much, which exercises, and how intense the workout should be.
When it comes to frequency, studies show that you’re going to get best results from training 3 or 4 times a week. Although not optimal, as little as one day a week of strength training can improve strength, muscle, and physical function. If you’re anxious about making the time commitment, start with 2 days a week to establish a habit and work up from there.
Training sessions should be about an hour including warm-up and cool-down. Longer workouts lead to a drop in training intensity—basically, people aren’t able to perform quality work for longer than an hour and they end up wasting their time. What about shorter workouts? Something is always better than nothing, however, you’re going to get the best results from doing a thorough warm-up, followed by 5 to 6 exercises, finishing with a cool-down.
Intensity refers to how heavy the weight you are lifting is. Intensity is always relative to the individual. This means that if you are training with weights in the 75 percent range, you are lifting weights that are 75 percent of the maximal amount you can lift. If you can squat 100 pounds one time, you should be lifting 75 pounds for 9 to 11 reps.
Of course, if you’re completely new to exercise, your max may be more like 20 pounds, in which case you’ll start with just your body weight, learning to lower and raise your body in and out of a squatting position with proper technique and without pain. As you gain strength, you can add weight and start using intensity to ensure you continue to progress by challenging your muscles.
Typically, we recommend alternating between a phase in which you focus on improving lean muscle by training with weights in the 65 to 80 percent range (moderately heavy) for 8 to 15 reps and a phase geared at increasing strength. A strength phase will use weights that are a little heavier (80-95 percent of maximal or “heavy”) for 2 to 8 reps. Each phase should be 3 to 6 weeks long. After 3 weeks, the body begins to adapt to your training and if you don’t switch up your workouts by 6 weeks, you’ll find your progress begins to stagnate and adaptations will plateau.
Studies show that up to a point, more sets are better for getting results. Five sets seem to be the sweet spot for young athletes, whereas older trainees can probably get away with 2 to 3 sets in a workout that includes 6 exercises.
Rest period length will depend on if your training for strength or for muscle/fat loss. When training with heavier loads to build strength, rest periods in the 2- to 3-minute range are ideal, although if you use supersets (see below), 90 second rest periods can save you time. When training for body composition, rest periods can be shorter in the 60-second range. Short rest periods are ideal because they trigger metabolic stress so that you increase lean tissue and burn fat, while targeting the aerobic energy system as well.
Workouts are typically designed around exercises that are multi-joint (such as squats or lunges that use the hip, knee, and ankle joint or overhead press that use the shoulder and elbow) because these motions have the greatest carryover to daily life and they target the greatest amount of muscle at a time. Examples are squats, lunges, leg press, step-ups, chest press, rows, pull-downs, and overhead press.
Single joint exercises are also important because they allow you to train weak links and perform “pre-habilitation” exercises that are geared at injury prevention. Examples include back extension, hamstring curls, biceps and triceps exercises, and internal and external rotation for the shoulders.
Supersets in which you alternate between two exercises using opposing muscle groups are a time-efficient strategy. For example, you could do squats followed by chest press on a bench with dumbbells, alternating between exercises until you reach 3 sets. Then switch to a superset of step-ups and lat-pulldown. Finish with a back extension and external rotation.
Don’t Forget Recovery
A common pitfall that novices encounter when starting a training program for the first time is to ignore the recovery process. We know from theories about how the body handles stress that the greatest adaptations occur when we overload the body’s systems, remove the stimulus, and provide rest and nutrition to allow the body to bounce back a little bit stronger each time. A good night’s rest, high-quality nutrition, and stress reduction strategies are all key elements to complete recovery so that you get the most out of your efforts for a long and joyous life.