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Strength training should be top of mind as we age

Why strength training is critical as you age and why you need it more than you are aware.
Strength training is all important as we age, for core and leg strength, and balance. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

Have you noticed how daily tasks that were once easy to perform all of a sudden seem challenging? You are not alone.

A person’s strength and their ability to move around with ease declines with age. We are living much longer thanks to advances in science and medicine, but there are challenges that come with aging that we all need to pay attention to. 

One of the challenges we all experience is the physical aspect of aging. Some changes come from our bones shrinking in size and losing density; this can make some people weaker and more susceptible to fractures when falls occur. Data shows that muscle mass decreases about three to eight per cent per decade after age 30, and the rate of decline increases even more after age 60. Luckily, it's possible to regain or build muscle mass at any age with resistance/strength training and a diet that includes enough protein for muscle development.

Our muscles, tendons and joints can lose strength and flexibility with age, which affects coordination, stability and balance. One of the best ways to slow or prevent the problems with bones, muscles and joints is to embark on an ongoing fitness program that emphasizes strength, balance and core movements.

As we age, it is important to have a strong core as it stabilizes the entire body, helping with balance and posture. Think of it this way: core muscles are a main support for the spine and can help prevent falls, minimize back pain and maintain independence for a longer time. When core muscles weaken, we are more susceptible to injuries.

A great example of a core exercise is a plank. Holding a plank a few times a day from anywhere between 20-30 seconds at a time can be a great addition to helping build up and maintain a strong core.

Secondly, having a strong base of support--the legs, helps keep us all upright and balanced. With aging, balance begins to weaken and legs lose muscle mass, mostly due to inactivity. This, in turn, causes a reduction in muscle strength in the legs, and legs that aren't strong enough to support us upright means a greater susceptibility to falls and injuries. We want the independence strong legs offer, such as being able to reach for a can in the cupboard or climb the stairs.

Studies show leg strength is the most reliable predictor of physical functionality later in life. A great exercise to begin doing today is the sit-to-stand squat. Start by sitting on a chair and getting yourself up from the chair about 5-8 times in a row. Perform this exercise two to three times a day for 5-8 times every day or every other day.

Lastly, improve balance. With age, balance control declines and can be a major risk factor for falls that may result in lower life quality, pain, disability--even death. Working on balance can have a positive impact on daily activities, reduce the risk of lower body injuries of the knees and ankles, improve overall mobility and strength, as well as improving ability to know where you are in space - known as proprioception.

A single leg exercise is a great way to improve balance. Start out by holding onto a chair or with a hand on a wall. Next, stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly lift one knee up off the floor, bent like an L shape about 90 degrees or straight out in front, holding the position for about 10 to 20 seconds before relaxing and bringing the leg down. Repeat the same side another two times in a row for 10-20 seconds each time then switch over to the other leg. Perform this exercise about two to three times per day every day, if possible.

Remember, keeping physically strong can boost confidence, self-esteem, and improve a sense of purpose and quality of life, even if the goals may seem small at first.

Juan Medrano is a certified functional training specialist and certified functional aging specialist. Juan is owner of Movimento Fitness in St. Albert.