Resistance exercise is the best way to slow down the loss of muscle strength that occurs with aging, and I believe that everyone should do some type of resistance exercise (moving your muscles against an opposing force) as part of their regular exercise program. I have always recommended joining a gym and using the weight training (Nautilus-type) machines there, but now, because of current events, we are staying away from our local gym and had to find a way to do our resistance exercises at home.
With aging, everyone will lose muscle size and strength, which markedly increases risk for:
• diabetes (J Endocrine Society, July 2020;4(7):bvaa043),
• heart attacks (J Epidem and Commun Health, Jan 2020), and
• some cancers (JAMA Netw Open, May 2, 2020;3(5):e204783).
Between 25 and 50 percent of North Americans over the age of 65 suffer from loss of muscle that is significant enough to limit their daily activities (J Am Geriatr Soc, 2004;52:80–85).
After age 40, people lose more than eight percent of their muscle size per decade and by age 70, the rate of muscle loss nearly doubles to 15 percent per decade, markedly increasing risk for disability and disease (Nutr Rev, May 2003;61:157-67). The smaller the muscles in your arms, legs and trunk, the smaller and weaker the upper and lower chambers of your heart (J Am Geriatr Soc, Dec 2019;67:2568-73), which makes you more likely to suffer heart failure (Cardiology, March 25, 2019).
Resistance Exercise Workouts
If you want to grow larger and stronger muscles, you have to exercise against increasing resistance. The only stimulus to make muscles larger and stronger is to stretch them while they contract against resistance. When you lift a heavy weight, your muscles start to stretch before they start to contract, which can cause swelling of the muscle fibers at their Z-lines. When the muscles heal, they will be stronger than they were before you exercised them against resistance. Read my reports on Making Muscles Stronger and Weight Lifting for Middle-Aged and Older People for detailed explanations and diagrams.
The basic principle of growing larger muscles is the same no matter how you do your resistance training. You don’t need special equipment; many exercises use your own body weight for resistance, such as sit-ups, planks, push-ups, stair-stepping or squats. You can create your own weights to lift using cloth shopping bags filled with cans (adjusting the weight by adding or subtracting cans), or you can use plastic gallon jugs filled with varying amounts of water. Stretchable bands are inexpensive and can be used for resistance exercises for virtually every part of the body; instructions are available on YouTube. You can get many more ideas by searching YouTube using phrases such as “resistance exercises at home.”
We chose to buy a home gym with weights, and we are able to get an excellent workout with it — but you need to be able to spare a few hundred dollars and have space to put it in. Lots of different models are available. We chose a Marcy Multifunction Home Gym MWM-988, available from Amazon. Note: We paid less than $500 for this home gym in March; the price showing now on Amazon is a ridiculous $1000+. If you are interested in this type of equipment, do some comparison shopping and check for other offers. Reader Bob Laslo is concerned that the Marcy equipment is not well built; he recommends Inspire Functional Trainer, Total Gym and Bowflex as good-quality brands.
We have used the home gym every day since we got it in March, doing 10-15 exercises in single sets of up to 100 repetitions, which takes us about 25-30 minutes a day. Regular gym goers are surprised when they hear that we do so many repetitions, but many older people have such weak muscles and joint problems that they can’t do full range-of-motion exercises or lift very heavy weights, and they need to avoid any exercise that causes pain when they do it. Instead, they can do more repetitions of each exercise to fatigue their muscle fibers enough to gain the Z-line swelling necessary to grow larger muscles.
Resistance, Repetitions, and Range-of-Motion for the Beginner
Many older people who start a resistance exercise program quit because of an injury (Internat J Sport and Exer Physiol, 2009;6:89-100), so you must learn to listen to your body and know when to increase a weight and when to take an easy day or a day off. Older people are susceptible to injuries when they try to lift very heavy weights, so the first rule is to lift a lighter weight with more repetitions to the point where your exercising muscles start to feel a burn, stretching or fatigue, and then stop that exercise.
As long as you exercise “to the burn” or to fatigue, you can gain almost the same muscle growth and strength by lifting a lighter weight many times as you do by lifting a heavier weight fewer times (J Appl Physiol, Jul 1, 2016;121(1):129-3). Beginners should start with a resistance or weight that they can comfortably lift and lower at least 10 times. Once you have decided on a weight that you can move 10 times, you may prefer to do more repetitions by reducing the range-of-motion so that you are moving a shorter distance.
As soon as your exercising muscles start to fatigue, burn or feel tight, stop that exercise and move to your next exercise, even if you have moved the weight only a few times. Pick 10-15 exercises that use different muscles, and try to do them every day. If your muscles feel sore with your first lift, skip that exercise and move on to the next exercise.
Listen to your body and never work through pain — your body talks to you. If you push through pain, you can expect an injury that could end your exercise program completely. As you continue in your program, you will find out that you can do increasingly more repetitions. As you become stronger, you may also be able to extend your range-of-motion with each lift. When doing your target number of repetitions becomes easy, you can add to the weight for that exercise.
Everybody loses strength and muscle size with aging, which can result in considerable disability and increased risk for diabetes, heart attacks and certain cancers. You can slow muscle loss with aging significantly by doing resistance exercises.
• Older people who start a resistance exercise program are at high risk for injuries, and the heavier the weight you lift, the more likely you are to injure yourself. You are far less likely to get injured if you lift lighter weights with more repetitions.
• Taking extra protein will not grow muscle or slow the loss of muscle with aging. See Extra Protein Does Not Enlarge Muscles
• You have lots of choices for resistance exercises that can be done in your home with little or no special equipment. If you want to get a substantial home gym, shop around to get exactly what you want and to get a good price.
Caution: Intense exercise can cause a heart attack in a person who has blocked arteries or heart damage. Check with your doctor before you start a new exercise program or increase the intensity of your existing program.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe's full bio.