You know that exercise is important. However, you may not know why exercise increases in importance as we get older.
As we get into our middle years (and on), our body goes through a number of biological changes. One very significant change is the decrease and loss of muscle mass. A reduction in muscle mass leads to weight gain. This is one of the reasons why I always encourage my clients to incorporate strength training into their personal training program.
Muscle Mass and Weight Gain Explained
A recent news article by National Public Radio on why we gain weight as we age provides a good description of what happens to muscles with the passage of time. Here is a quick summary of what they have to say:
- As we get older, muscle mass decreases and the muscles that are left over are smaller and weaker than those of a younger person. Young muscles repair naturally. That is not case for older muscles. We are not sure why this happens – we know it just does.
- Muscles are the “energy powerhouse” of the body. It is where the calories get burned and where your metabolism plays out.
- If your percentage of muscle mass decreases as you get older, then your ability to burn the incoming calories also decreases over time. And this is why we gain weight as we age. As a muscular 25 year old, you we able to easily consume (and burn) 2500 calories a day without gaining any weight. As a 45 year (who has not been on a regular exercise program), those same 2500 calories per day have lead to a noticeable weight gain.
- Exercise, at any age, causes muscle cells to get bigger and stronger. And bigger, stronger muscles burn calories.
Now you can see why I encourage my clients to make strength training a component of their personal training exercise program. Many people come to me because they want to lose weight and look trim. Frequently, they have had injuries in the past or feel that their bodies cannot take the stress of exercise. As a Physiotherapist, I complete a full medical assessment of their fitness level and gauge what they are capable of doing. As a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and fitness professional, I develop safe and effective exercise programs that let them achieve their fitness goals over time and free of injury.
Now that you know the affect muscle has on weight gain, here are some takeaways that I would like to suggest:
- Exercise is not just for the young. It is important at any age and the benefits of strength training extend beyond being strong to weight maintenance.
- Do not delay starting an exercise program. The NPR article talks about the benefits people get from starting an exercise program late in life. I agree that there are benefits, but what I have noticed is that some of my older clients who have been de-conditioned for an extended period are limited in their development. I have younger clients who are also de-conditioned, but I have noticed that they are able to turn it around faster and achieve a higher level of fitness than my older clients. To my knowledge, there is no definitive scientific study identifying the relationship between age and ability to achieve specific fitness levels. However, my suggestion is the sooner you start, the better you will be throughout your life.
- It is important you follow a safe exercise program tailored to YOU. What you are capable of will be determined by your fitness history, medical condition, the presence of injuries and other factors. Your personal training program needs to include a thorough assessment by a medical and fitness professional and only then can a program be prescribed.
- Your exercise program needs to account for the risk of joint inflammation and injury. The NPR article makes note of the frequent result of joint inflammation as a result of an exercise program. Unfortunately, they do not describe how this can be avoided. An exercise program needs to include a medical assessment so that the fitness professional understands the limits of your joints. Once this is understood, the exercise program should be designed to stress your muscles to grow without aggravating the joints.
- Your exercise program should grow with you. The NPR article refers to a lady who started a Yoga program and quickly experienced more endurance, a loss of weight and an improved outlook on life. This is good news. But one needs to keep in mind that there will be immediate benefits to any exercise if you start from a low level of fitness. Your exercise program will need to challenge you as you make progress in order to continue on the path to fitness and to keep you engaged and interested.
If you are interested in the NPR article you can find it here: