Anti-Aging Benefits of Strength Training
That fountain of youth may not be in the latest fad diet or a bottle of superjuice, but in a barbell loaded with heavy plates. Weight lifting isn’t just about bulging biceps. Contemporary research is beginning to show that regular weight-bearing activity can not only help you maintain muscle size and function, but positively influence several biomarkers of aging. A consistent regimen of moving iron may be the single best predictor of mortality, physical and mental well-being, and quality of life as you age.
Regardless of your overall health, everybody suffers from age-related sarcopenia, a progressive generalized loss of skeletal muscle mass and accompanying decline in muscle strength and performance with increasing age. A longitudinal study reported an average loss of 0.25kg/yr of lean muscle among participants aged 22–53, accelerating with each passing decade (1). Studies have shown that maintaining muscle through strength training is the most effective means of reducing sarcopenia and maintaining motor function as you age (2). Like many other conditions, sarcopenia often isn’t noticed until it is too late—when you slip and fall or begin having difficulty getting out of your chair. The loss in muscle mass not only affects the scale and the vision in the mirror, but is also important in maintaining the functional movement abilities that help you maintain independence. Consistent resistant training can slow declines in gait and balance, decrease risk for falls, and help you maintain energy and vitality regardless of how old your driver’s license says you are.
Along with decreases in lean muscle mass and functionality, there are countless physiological processes involved in organismal aging, several of which weight-bearing physical activity directly influences. Resistance training can reduce markers of oxidative stress, increase antioxidant enzyme activity, and increase mitochondria capacity; all of which are directly correlated to decreases in morbidity and mortality. Research is also beginning to show that older adults who regularly weight train exhibit gene expression profiles in skeletal muscle consistent with much younger individuals. A study involving 26 participants with a mean age of 68 found that as little as three sessions of strength training per week could not only slow down, but begin reversing the expression of 179 genes associated with age (3). Strength training may also have a slowing effect on the attrition of telomeres—buffers at the end of DNA chromosomes whose length may be directly correlated with biological age. Telomeres are like the plastic tips on the end of your shoelaces; they keep chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, which would destroy or scramble an organism’s genetic information. Researchers found that women who participated in regular strength training had longer telomeres than sedentary individuals who were 10 years younger (5). Regular strength training may provide defensive benefits at the cellular level that can expand your lifespan.
The brain often goes before the body. Like a muscle, the brain grows stronger with repeated action, and new research is providing evidence that few activities may be more effective for maintaining brain size and function than squats and deadlifts. By the time we reach middle-age, most of us have already begun developing age-related lesions in our brains’ white matter. These lesions are correlated with decreases in memory, basic cognitive skills, and motor function. A recently published study has shown that strength training as little as twice a week may slow down the development of these white matter lesions, maintaining the function of our ageing brains (5). Furthermore, lifting may directly improve short-term memory. A study published in Acta Psychologica found that participants who lifted weights performed 10 percent better on image memory tests (6).
The evidence is mounting: it’s never too late to integrate strength training into your regular exercise routine. But your body and brain may not endure if you wait too long.
You should consult your physician or other health-care professional before starting any exercise program.