aging · fitness · strength training

A real life lesson in muscle loss and aging

So normally here on the blog the vibe is all about discovering your own fitness groove. Find something you enjoy and do that, we say, because if fitness finds its way into your life as one more thing you have to do, another tedious, unpleasant, time consuming task, it’s very hard to stick with it.

Add pleasure to your life by finding a form of movement you enjoy.

Along with “start small” it’s probably the most common piece of fitness we give.

Three years ago I remember pushing myself to branch out and give advice to a reader who hated exercise and who just wanted the health benefits. I said they should figure out what is necessary–strength training for bone health, cardio for heart health, something for flexibility and mobility– and then regular, everyday exercise, and make a plan to fit it in.

Now in this case, the reader did ask so we were on solid ground I think offering up our advice.

But there’s another theme lurking just below the surface at the blog. Lately I’ve been wanting to stand up and yell from a soapbox about women and the need for strength training. It might not be the thing that brings you joy but it might be necessary for functional fitness and independent living as you age.

The numbers are striking. Here’s this from a recent New York Times piece,

“Aging causes muscles to lose mass, bone density to thin and joints to stiffen — affecting our balance, coordination and strength. At the same time, hormonal shifts and persistent low-level inflammation can set the stage for chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

And the changes start earlier than you might think. Muscles begin to shrink in our 30s and continue their downward spiral in midlife, with up to 25 percent of their peak mass gone by the time we’re 60.

But there’s hope: Exercise can stall muscle loss, cognitive decline and fatigue. “It’s never too late to start exercising, and it’s never too early,” Chhanda Dutta, a gerontologist at the National Institute on Aging, said.”

Women have been sold a bill of goods about fitness. There’s the focus on thinness, on appearance, and the over emphasis on cardio fitness over strength training. These things are also planks in my soapbox.

I was in hospital recently, after my knee replacement surgery, I was struck by how many of my elderly hospital roommates lacked the upper body strength to perform basic functional movements. Yes, they’d just had joint surgery but some of them struggled to be able to move themselves around in bed.

The staff were also assessing patients to see who would be able to go home and who had to go to a rehab hospital first. There was a pretty big range in ability to get out of bed and sit in a chair or use the commode bedside the hospital bed.

I think I said after the last surgery that one legged pistol squats made a lot more sense using the toilet after knee surgery. After this visit, core and tricep strength seemed pretty essential to a hospital stay where you’ve got some control over how you position yourself in bed. It felt like a lesson about muscle loss, strength training, and aging.

Now it maybe that we are over valuing independence. Maybe we should care less about it. I think this is a genuinely hard question. But to the extent that we do care about it, we should be in the gym lifting weights.

Training for my summer body? Fuck no! I’m training for my old lady body.. Dense bones. Strong muscles. A healthy heart. Good balance. Functional independence.

Here’s another example of the kind of rants I’m drawn to,

And you don’t necessarily need any fancy equipment.

Woman wearing hijab doing push-ups on wooden bench in park. Photo by  Ola Alghazzouli  on  Scopio

8 thoughts on “A real life lesson in muscle loss and aging

  1. This feels important to emphasize–and I say that because I know how much I prioritize cardio, partly because it’s how I get my yayas out, but also because it feels “fit” somehow, and the things I do for strength, often seem “fit adjacent”. In fact, I realize that sometimes I think of the strength work as what’s about “looks”, so I deprioritize, and the cardio as my fitness and mental/emotional support. So … this is an important reminder for me.

    1. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right. I think it’s the stuff I do in the real world, outdoors, that counts. Sometimes that’s canoe camping, most often it’s biking. I strength train in support of that but like you, the strength training isn’t my main thing. I think I need to shift my thinking a bit too.

  2. This is a good message. I am naturally pretty strong – not flexible, not fast – so have been able to keep up what looks like plenty of strength by doing a weekly strength session plus a couple of yoga sessions. But I have to be careful to stay on top of it now that I am in my 70s. It is sort of hard to find classes that challenge me, though, now that I am living in a senior community.

  3. At the YMCA where I frequent, I am seeing woman of ALL ages strength training. Even teenagers!

  4. Lift heavy shit. Avoids cardio. That’s me.

    But I’m really loving how much peri/menopause coverage is happening in the fitness world. Especially the work of Selene Yeager and Stacey Sims bringing the science to life – Lift heavy, super high intensity interval training and plyometrics.

  5. This is an important nudge for me. I am not as excited by strength training as I used to be, but I can’t afford to avoid it. When we started the blog and our FB50 challenge in 2014 I was feeling the effects of not doing it. And after dedicated resistance training during the pandemic, I’ve all but stopped. I feel it again—I don’t have the same strength for yoga or running.

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