Does Getting Old Mean Becoming Fragile?
I’ll spoil it right off the bat – absolutely not. In fact, acting as if you were fragile is likely contributing to you becoming fragile. Truth be told, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly, it’s largely perpetuated by modern media and conventional “wisdom”. I’m not sure where these attitudes came from exactly, but they’re perpetuated on the basis of ignorance.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone mention that feeling broken down and weak is part of aging, I’d be able to hire Bezos as a personal butler. The truth is, at least in the United States, we’re victims of our own first-world leisure. Most jobs are desk jobs, or at least not very physically demanding. Our idea of “relaxing” involves Cheeto Puffs and the Bachelor, and “normal” is sitting around for 8+ hours a day. When we leave machinery lying around and neglected, it rusts. When you feed your body terrible food and neglect it by not exercising in a meaningful way, it will also break down. Thankfully, we have a scientific community dedicated to investigating these claims. As it turns out, the process of aging is more a reflection of how you decide to live rather than an inevitable decay that results in frailty and a permanent cognitive fog. Even more fortunate is that in order to age gracefully, one need only dedicate a couple hours a week to their health.
Today, I’m going to focus on a couple common health concerns with aging:
- Osteoporosis and Osteopenia
- Cardiovascular Disease and Impaired Cognition
- Poor mobility and Strength to Accomplish Simple Tasks
If you’re familiar with who I am, you can guess the remedy that I’m going to suggest: heavy resistance training incorporating free-weights and barbells.
Benefits of Heavy Resistance Training
(>85% 1rm, roughly a 5 rep max)
Increased bone density in the medial portion of the bones
One of the most significant benefits of training with relatively heavy weight (that is, weight that is heavy relative to the person performing the exercise) is that it actively fights against both osteoporosis and osteopenia.
Bone loss in older individuals is a massive cause of losing independence, usually resulting from falling due to lack of balance (which will be touched on later) as well as fragile bones (which means less dense bones that are more prone to fractures/breaks).
When it comes to addressing this issue, it’s usually significantly harder to retroactively fight the problem than proactively preventing it. If you make it a priority to strengthen your bones starting in your adult life, by the time you get to an age where these become common problems, you will have spent decades proactively protecting yourself against them.
Some specific exercises I’d like to mention are Squats and Deadlifts. While these are typically caricatured as the boogeymen of resistance training, these actually have lower rates of incidence than typical team sports. I’ve included a reference below if you’re curious to see the systematic review conducted to reach that conclusion. I think it’s worth reading the conclusion in its entirety:
While the majority of the research we reviewed utilized retrospective designs, the weight-training sports appear to have relatively low rates of injury compared with common team sports. Future weight-training sport injury epidemiology research needs to be improved, particularly in terms of the use of prospective designs, diagnosis of injury, and changes in risk exposure.The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports
Back to speaking on my own opinion, it’s paramount to include heavy resistance training that includes axial (spinal) loading (assuming the individual has no conditions barring them from engagement). Not only is back pain a common complaint for virtually all age demographics, but spinal integrity is one of the major risks when it comes to dealing with osteoporosis/penia. Exercises like a heavy squat or a heavy deadlift both contribute to increasing spinal bone density due to their nature of axial loading, as well as virtually every other bone that finds itself under load, specifically femurs and hip girdles, two major candidates for injury as one ages.
Substantially lower risk of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) when trained independent of aerobic exercise (jogging, biking, etc.)
Another major problem facing an aging population is Cardiovascular Disease. While aerobic exercise does provide great benefits, so does heavy resistance training. If you’re like most people, you also don’t have 2-3 hours a day to dedicate to various types of exercise. Aerobic exercise doesn’t provide much, if any that I’m aware of, benefit to bone density. Thus if your goal is to better your health all around with a limited amount of time to spare, resistance training is going to take the cake once again. You can get in a solid session within anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour (or more if you’re so inclined) and reap some major benefits, one of which being a healthier heart.
Increased mobility (flexibility of the joint) and proprioception (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body)
Another issue with age is the tendency towards stiff muscles due to lack of use. While stretching certainly provides benefits in regards to being able to move through a greater range of motion, it does not necessarily make you stronger in that range of motion, just more elastic.
The benefit of resistance training is that not only are you able to take your joints through a larger range of motion, but you actively strengthen them within that very range of motion. What’s the point of moving your hands overhead if you’re unable to take out the trash? Or being able to get into a deep squat position if you can’t stand back up?
Even better yet, resistance training increases proprioception. As mentioned earlier, falling and general clumsiness is a significant problem for aging populations. Imagine an elderly population that not only has bones dense enough to walk-off falling over, but also very rarely ever falls over. One of the major adaptations to training here is having a better sense of awareness of your own body. As muscle develops, so does your ability to control that muscle. Even without developing new muscle, you can still train your muscles to be evermore precise via neurological improvements stimulated by resistance training.
Unfortunately, much of society has bought into the lie that you essentially have to shut up, be quiet, and die in obscurity as you get older. Or at least get weak enough so that you’re at the mercy and goodwill of everyone else. In reality, lifting heavy weights starting in early adulthood (or earlier!) might enable you to lead a life of self-sufficiency all the way up to your last breath.
Take control of your health now, make the decision that you want to lead a full life with every second of it. It’s a relatively small time investment for what would be an incredible increase in quality of life as you age. Don’t wait to treat the symptoms later, but actively make the choice to be proactive about the risks today.
- Nagamatsu, L. S., Handy, T. C., Hsu, C. L., Voss, M., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2012). Resistance training promotes cognitive and functional brain plasticity in seniors with probable mild cognitive impairment. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172(8), 666–668. – Positive effects on cognition
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21969080/ – Flexibility and Strength
- Lambert C, Beck BR, Harding AT, Watson SL, Weeks BK. Regional changes in indices of bone strength of upper and lower limbs in response to high-intensity impact loading or high-intensity resistance training. Bone. 2020 Mar;132:115192. doi: 10.1016/j.bone.2019.115192. Epub 2019 Dec 15. PMID: 31846824. – Effects on Bone Health
- Liu Y, Lee DC, Li Y, Zhu W, Zhang R, Sui X, Lavie CJ, Blair SN. Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Mar;51(3):499-508. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001822. PMID: 30376511; PMCID: PMC7385554. – Effects on Cardiovascular health
- Keogh, J.W.L., Winwood, P.W. The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports. Sports Med 47, 479–501 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0575-0