There is a lot of conjecture when it comes to training the elderly. The general rule of thumb is, the older we get, the gentler the exercise progression should become. This consititues less complex movements and more gradual, steady state activity like walking, water aerobics or other means of endurance-based cardiovascular activities that are less impactful on the body.
This is a common misconception and factually wrong. As we age, we start to diminish in muscular size, skeletal density and central nervous system (CNS) activation. As we approach 40, the decline accelerates but after 50, the decline hits terminal velocity; every subsequent decade after 50 sees a further decrease of between 25-30% in the aforementioned attributes (that is for untrained and sedentary adults).
Unfortunately, a decline in these attributes is unavoidable but the rate of which they decline is solely up to the individual. To break the popular belief of ‘less is best’ with the elderly, we have to explain why the contrary is more effective for increasing quality of life.
When performing long aerobic work the body will experience muscle catabolism (muscle eating environment – protein degradation); simply put as we run or ride or row or whatever the endurance based activity is, the body will become more efficient, shredding away unwanted muscle mass and allowing the body to become less calorie dependant (more muscle = more calories needed to sustain them). Basically, the body is taking excess weight off so we can travel further on the same gas. This can be a serious problem as we get older. The aging process is already beginning to reduce muscle mass, skeletal density and CNS stimulation, so the last thing needed is another factor encouraging the process.
There is hope however; historical and current research indicates that strength/power training as we get older is exponentially more effective in increasing quality of life. This may sound extreme, considering that we seemingly get frailer and more brittle as we age, so lessening the risk seems the logical progression. However, science is rarely logical and when we break down the major issues, namely the deterioration of body parts and processes, only weight bearing activity will have a positive effect. The body is an adaptive mechanism and when it’s put under certain stressors the body will do its best to adapt to those stressors; this is the reason we experience elevated health and fitness parameters post-training.
Muscle mass only responds to external loads being applied to it. When we apply external forces to our muscles, we damage our fibres at a microscopic level causing an inflammatory response (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS). This allows for damaged tissue to be repaired or excreted and encourages new cell proliferation to develop, resulting in increased muscle mass. A larger cross-sectional area of muscle gives us a greater ability to produce force. Applying this to the earlier point, namely that that the ageing process cannot be stopped but can be inhibited, then resistance training creates a positive environment for muscle cell proliferation and our capacity to combat muscle wastage from ageing is enhanced.
The same can be said for the skeletal system. As we get older, bone regeneration slows/ceases and bone related illness like arthritis becomes more prevalent. Arthritis and related illnesses are actually enhanced by a lack of weight bearing activity. Just like muscle, bone cell generation only increases when it is subjected to weight bearing exercises or external loading. The more we lift, the stronger the bones become; in contrast, the less we lift and/or the more endurance based movements we perform, there is an acceleration of the attenuation of bone fragility and brittleness.
This leads to the final point of CNS transmission. Muscle is based on neuromuscular quality; that is, the nervous system and muscular system work in synergy. However, when we are discussing power we are simultaneously discussing neural quality; how fast and powerful movements are is based on how functional our CNS is. As CNS efficiency declines with age, the ability to produce power ultimately suffers. To increase CNS involvement in movement, we have to perform complex and fast moving activities, whether under load or with body weight. As the CNS is heavily involved in both strength and power, this attribute can be the single most important attribute to be addressed as we get older.
To improve speeds of neural transmission, more is required of the neurological system which can be achieved by performing fast, highly skilled movements. When performing fast, highly skilled movements, many neurological pathways are required to be organised in such a way to ensure that muscle can contract in harmony. This requires a certain inhibition of some cells and excitation of others, requiring a huge involvement from the CNS. The more movements and pathways of such a nature, the better and healthier the central nervous system, despite the transition this system will be experiencing from its youth to senior years.
We can apply these three components in a real life case study. When the elderly fall, we all know how catastrophic it can be for them and in most cases, they don’t even recover to their full capacity, if at all.
For example, say a senior loses their balance and through reaction, puts a hand down on the bench to stop them from falling. If they aren’t active or haven’t previously established a training base, the speed at which they get their hand to the bench will be slower than the contrary, meaning they may miss it completely, potentially leading to a fall in which they break several bones due to poor skeletal system and face a lengthy recovery period. Alternatively, they may be able to get their hand on the bench in time, but the force applied to the bench wasn’t sufficient to stop the fall or prevent, ultimately, any injury.
Therefore, it is imperative that strength and power training is implemented in the elderly instead of or, preferably, complementing lengthy aerobic work. The stigma of refraining from higher intensity resistance training has to be quashed in order for people to sustain a better quality of life in our twilight years. Performing a structured, correctly prescribed resistance training regime will provide a plethora of measurable benefits; however, care must be applied with such an approach to ensure that it is appropriate for the relative experience and skill level of the participant. A sufficient base must always be established before moving to powerful movements, especially considering that strength is the precursor to all power gains. Finally, as age increases, ailments are typically more prominent amongst participants and the requisite concerns to address those ailments must be considered when prescribing exercises for elderly participants.
Age is not an impenetrable barrier and there is nothing to prevent those approaching the latter stages of life from enjoying the fruits of a structured, considered and appropriate weight-bearing exercise program to ensure a greater quality of life.