It's no secret that America is a sedentary society. The predictable result of this country's inactive lifestyle is an almost-unavoidable increase in body weight. According to Dr. Wayne Westcott, as many as 80 percent of men and women in their 50s and older have too little muscle and too much fat, leading to obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, low back pain, and numerous types of cancer.
Fortunately, muscle loss is reversible, and research reveals that resistance exercise is effective for increasing muscle mass at all ages. As Westcott points out in the new third edition of his popular Strength Training Past 50, it is essential for men and women over 50 to engage in regular resistance exercise because the rate of muscle loss nearly doubles after the fifth decade of life. In the book, cowritten with Thomas Baechle (cofounder and past president of the National Strength and Conditioning Association), Westcott offers 13 benefits of strength training and the maintenance of a strong muscular system:
- Rebuilding muscle. Dozens of studies have demonstrated that even a relatively brief program of resistance exercise (20 to 40 minutes per session, two or three days a week) can rebuild muscle tissue in people 50 to 90 years of age. Westcott says most of these research programs have resulted in a gain of three to four pounds of muscle after just three to four months of strength training.
- Recharging metabolism. Resistance training has a dual impact on a person's metabolic rate because it increases energy use during both the exercise session and the muscle recovery and rebuilding period—up to three days after each workout.
- Reducing fat. Most people accumulate fat as they age, even if their eating patterns remain the same. Fortunately, the same strength training studies that showed a three- to four-pound increase in muscle also demonstrated a three- to four-pound decrease in fat weight.
- Reducing resting blood pressure. Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Around one-third of American adults have high blood pressure. Westcott says it is encouraging, then, that numerous studies have shown significant reductions in resting blood pressure readings after two more months of standard or circuit-style strength training.
- Improving blood lipid profiles. Almost half of American adults have undesirable blood lipid levels, increasing their risk for heart disease. But regular strength training can result in favorable increases of 8 to 21 percent in HDL (good) cholesterol, favorable decreases of 13 to 23 percent in LDL (bad) cholesterol, and favorable reductions of 11 to 18 percent in triglycerides.
- Enhancing postcoronary performance. For older adults who have had problems with cardiovascular health, resistance exercise has proven to be a productive means for attaining and maintaining desirable body weight, increasing muscle mass and strength, improving physical performance, speeding recovery from the cardiovascular event, and enhancing self-efficacy.
- Resisting diabetes. “People who have desirable body weights and moderate to high levels of muscular fitness have a very low risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” Westcott explains. Studies have shown significant improvements in insulin sensitivity and glycemic control after several weeks of strength training.
- Increasing bone density. Muscle loss is closely associated with bone loss, but fortunately, strength training increases both muscle mass and bone mass. Substantial increases in bone mineral density have been seen after several months of regular resistance exercise. “Regular resistance training is the most productive means for developing a strong and injury-resistant musculoskeletal system,” Westcott proclaims.
- Decreasing physical discomfort. While a large percentage of people with lower-back pain can reduce discomfort by strengthening their lower-back muscles, resistance exercise has also proven helpful for people who have arthritis and fibromyalgia.
- Enhancing mental health. Westcott has conducted several studies on the psychological changes associated with regular resistance exercise, noting significant improvements in depression, physical self-concept, fatigue, revitalization, tranquility, tension, positive engagement, and overall mood disturbance among adults and older adults.
- Revitalizing muscle cells. Circuit-style strength training characterized by short rests between successive exercises can increase mitochondrial content and capacity. Westcott says positive results have led researchers to conclude that resistance exercise can reverse specific aging factors in muscle tissue.
- Reversing physical frailty. “Even people well past the age of 50 can benefit from sensible strength training,” Westcott stresses. He says reasonable amounts of resistance exercise can enable elderly adults to regain strength, fitness, and physical abilities so that they do less wheelchair sitting and more walking. They'll also be able to do other physical activities such as bicycling.
- Combating cancer. Strength training is well tolerated by adult cancer patients and may provide a variety of health and fitness benefits during and after treatment, such as reduced fatigue, increased muscle strength, improved body composition, and enhanced physical function (especially shoulder mobility in patients recovering from breast cancer).