Why the Gym Is the Place to Be for Older Adults

You don’t have to have decades of workouts under your belt to reap the muscle-building benefits, finds a new study.

by Stephanie Stephens Health Writer

Imagine a stack of papers rising from desktop to ceiling, containing just some of the medical literature reporting the benefits of exercise. Now, there’s even more proof of the adage that "it's never too late"—to start exercising. It’s what a new study from the University of Birmingham's School of Sport and Exercise Science, in the U.K., reports in a recent issue of Frontiers in Physiology.

Now imagine seeing a veteran athlete—somewhere in his 70s or 80's—doing weight training on an exercise machine. He's been "working out" all his life and even competed in his sport. And maybe you're an older adult and you're thinking: "Wow. I could never do that because I've never done that." Or maybe you've kind of given up on any thoughts of fitness at your age.

You can get over that psychological hump because, according to these recent findings, you too can demonstrate the same ability to build muscle mass as that pro or master athlete. Even if you haven't been doing "structured" exercise like weight training, it will still do you a lot of good.

Make the Most of Your Muscles

Everyone needs skeletal muscle to maintain physical function, because they connect to tendons and bones, and enable us to have our posture. Most of our body tissue is skeletal muscle, but as we age, we progressively lose it in a process called sarcopenia.

People who've exercised regularly throughout adulthood typically have better physiological or bodily function when compared to non-athletes who are the same age. No surprise there.

For this study, however, members of the two groups—the master athletes in their 70s and 80s, and the never-ever exercisers—drank what's called an isotope tracer. That's a radioactive element detectable in the body used to mark material for a study or to observe how it progresses through the system. After downing their beverage, participants worked out one time on weight machines.

Researchers took muscle biopsies from them 48 hours before and after the workouts—these were extracted with a needle. A local anesthesia was used, and the samples were rinsed, blotted, and then frozen in liquid nitrogen. Then they were examined for clues about muscle response to exercise as shown by the development of proteins in those muscles.

You'd think the long-term pros would have more ability to build muscle, but surprise: Both groups built muscle the same thanks to exercise. It's yet another reason to turn off the TV and get off the couch.

Awesome Benefits of Exercise

In a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers found that a whopping 31 million Americans (28%) age 50 years and older are inactive. That means they are not physically active beyond the basic movements needed for daily life activities—going to work, shopping at a grocery store, or walking around their homes.

Consider that physical activity or exercise does all this for older adults, per the CDC:

  • Helps them live independently

  • Reduces the risk of falling and fracturing bones

  • Reduces the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and of developing high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes

  • Can help reduce blood pressure in some people with hypertension

  • Helps people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength

  • Reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression and fosters improvements in mood and feelings of well-being

  • Helps maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints

  • Helps control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis

Exercise also helps everyone sleep better, which means being sharper all day long. Remember that aging means a less efficient immune system, which means more of a chance of getting sick.

The National Council on Aging says approximately 80% of older adults have at least one and 77% have at least two. True, we all develop more chronic conditions as we age, and exercise helps give our immune system a much-needed boost so it can go to bat for our bodies when necessary.

Yes, You Can!

After you’ve received the OK from your doctor, take these steps to get your move on:

  • Try the National Institute on Aging's Go4Life exercise and physical activity plan that shows you how to fit this into your already busy life.

  • Set a realistic goal and plan. You don't have to do it all right now. Just commit to begin a long-term plan that will pay off handsomely.

  • Check out community resources, like your YMCA or YWCA—which may offer a Silver Sneakers program that might be included with your Medicare supplement plan—or see what's up at your local community center or church.

  • Gotta' love that cardio, and you can do it on the treadmill, elliptical machine, or bicycle at your gym. If you're a fish out of water, swimming is also great cardio, and taking a turn on the dance floor gets your heart pumping—to the music. Oh, and doesn't your dog want to go for a brisk walk right now? Simple boot-camp-style jumping jacks also pump up that heart rate.

  • If you want to do more than walk, but still keep it "easy does it", start with gentle tai chi for balance, or some beginner yoga, both are great for flexibility and control. Try one of the new stretching studios like StretchLab or Stretch U and get ready to bend and flex.

  • You know you want to: Get down and do that push-up, then another, and please don't get discouraged. This kind of strength training can be done with your own body weight, or with simple, inexpensive elastic bands that come in different "tightness" levels.

Stephanie Stephens
Meet Our Writer
Stephanie Stephens

Stephanie Stephens is a very experienced digital journalist, audio/video producer and host who covers health, healthcare and health policy, along with celebrities and their health, for a variety of publications, websites, networks, content agencies and other distinctive clients. Stephanie was accepted to THREAD AT YALE for summer 2018 to author and produce an investigative series. She is also active in the animal welfare community.