As an ageing population continues to pile pressure on Britain’s health care system, it’s increasingly important to get older people more active to enable them to lead happier, healthier and more independent lives in their later years – with strength training able to play an important role in this.
According to the latest report from the Office for National Statistics, it’s predicted that, in 50 years’ time, there will be an extra 8.6 million people aged 65 and above in the UK; a population around the size of London. With obesity levels on the rise too amongst Western populations, which exacerbates frailty, it’s no surprise then that the NHS is focused on ‘prevention’ to sustain services moving forward. A large part of this is helping older people to get moving more and fight the effects of ageing which cause our muscles to deteriorate over time.
With this in mind, current NHS guidelines state that adults over the age of 65 should aim to do strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms), which – when combined with anaerobic activity – is seen as the best way to help older people stay strong, fit and healthy for as long as possible.
The Benefits of Strength Training
There are numerous benefits to strength training regardless of an individual’s age; from improving neuromuscular efficiency, which improves all skill-related components of fitness such as balance, coordination and agility, to improving the ease of everyday tasks, including walking, running and jumping.
Interestingly, strength training can also improve bone density. Like muscle, bone is living tissue, so it responds to exercise by becoming stronger. For older adults, improved bone strength helps with all aspects of everyday activity and reduces the risk of falls, while also helping those with osteoporosis (of which there are over 3 million in the UK according to NHS figures) to reduce the risk of fractures.
In fact, research published this year identified that an in-home exercise programme consisting of balance and resistance training exercises (for example, using free weights) may reduce the risk of older adults falling by up to 36%. Additionally, a recent study by the University College Dublin looked at the best ways for pensioners to reverse frailty and muscle strength and protein powder interventions were found to be effective and easy to implement.
What’s more, overall improvements in lean body mass can lead to an enhanced metabolic rate which results in improved body composition, improving a person’s perception of their body image - no matter whether their 18 or 80 - which has been linked to lower levels of stress.
Strength Training Shouldn’t Be Intimidating
From the clanging of metal to the ripped bodies of young, hardcore fitness fanatics, stepping onto the gym floor for an older person – or anyone for that matter – can be a daunting task; something that’s become known as ‘gymtimidation.’ But strength training doesn’t have to be scary because it is, in fact, a very generic term.
People often think that ‘having strength’ or ‘being strong’ simply means being big, bulky and shifting large amounts of weight. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many definitions of strength (eight to be exact) and anyone who resistance trains will be able to fit into one or more of these. For example, there’s Starting Strength which is the ability to generate force without any momentum or pre-stretch. Developing this aspect of strength could be very useful for an older person to help them stand up from a seated position more easily. Then, there’s Relative Strength which is the amount of force produced per unit of bodyweight. In older age, it can become increasingly difficult to hold your own bodyweight, so developing this area of strength can be hugely beneficial.
Another reason why older people shouldn’t be intimidated by going to the gym is that Fitness Programmes for Older Adults was ranked fourth in the Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2019 by the American College of Sports Medicine. This means that more and more work is being done by fitness facilities and their staff to create workout environments and classes that cater for older generations, with huge potential seen in this area. Coupled with this, new research from Decathlon, sports retailer, claims that over 65s are now the most active age group in the UK.
With so much to be gained from strength training, it’s the job of fitness professionals across the industry to encourage this method of exercise amongst older adults. Not only will you be helping to change lives, which is highly rewarding, but you’ll be helping the whole nation by implementing an effective preventative measure which supports our health care systems.
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