As we age, our muscles get weaker, a process known as sarcopenia. This can leave people prone to falls, fractures, and becoming socially isolated, as they lose the ability to go about their daily routine – like doing the weekly shop or even bathing.
But new research by experts at Liverpool Hope University reports ‘incredible’ improvements in muscle strength (up to 60% gains) after a short four-month programme of weight-based exercise.
PhD researcher Kate Mooney says combating muscle wastage will prove key in tackling a whole host of diseases associated with the UK’s ageing population.
Kate, who has been looking at how nutrition and exercise could improve health in a group of older adults, says it’s important older adults incorporate weight training into regular aerobic exercise.
She adds: ‘Our study shows that it’s never too late to start lifting weights. The improvement of muscular strength noted in this study is crucial for maintaining older adults’ independence, to enable them to carry out activities of daily living such as climbing stairs, walking to the shop and holding grocery bags.
‘Losing mobility is one of the most debilitating issues facing older adults and exercise could help prevent this. Muscle weakness is a common cause of falls and fractures in the elderly and can extend hospitalisation and recovery times for older patients. It is also associated with increased risk of mortality in older adults.
‘But resistance exercise – designed to increase muscle strength as well as functional ability and physical performance – could have a significant impact on prevention of age-related diseases.
‘Older adults should be taking part in a combination of weight based training and aerobic exercise, at least two to three times per week, as per NHS recommendations. And it’s never too late to begin.’
The clinical trial itself analysed 100 adults, aged 60 and above, who were all completely new to weight training. They attended a gym three times a week for a 16 week period for resistance exercise and ‘functional exercise’, including lunges, squats and a mini obstacle course sessions.
And Kate says: ‘Participants who took part in the exercise programme showed some remarkable improvements in their muscular strength, after just 16 weeks of training. They had an increase in hand grip strength, an important indicator of overall muscle strength, by 9%.
‘Additionally, incredible strength increases were observed for exercises carried out in the gym – leg press by 45%, chest press by 60% and bicep curl by 33% – important measures of lower and upper body strength, respectively.’
Kate says there was another significant impact on the group – how their social life improved. She adds: ‘Participants all worked in groups, and encouraged one another. This definitely helped them push hard in the gym and achieve the results we saw.
‘All the people who took part in this trial were new to weight training. But since finishing our trial, a group of participants have even continued to train together, showing the creation of good habits and the enjoyable social element.’
The trial didn’t just focus on muscular strength, the importance of nutrition was also assessed. Crucially, Kate and her colleagues found that adding whey protein to diets – a popular supplement thought to help improve muscle protein synthesis and promote the growth of lean muscle mass, had no additional benefits in those who already consuming adequate protein.
Dr Grace Farhat, lecturer in Food Science and Nutrition at Liverpool Hope University, adds: ‘The study concluded that whey protein didn’t enhance the effects of exercise training on muscle strength and function. In fact, if you eat a balanced diet with adequate protein, there is no need for whey protein supplementation.
‘The important point is to consume enough protein to support muscle health, for older adults this is approximately 20–30g per meal, or the equivalent of one chicken breast, a tin of tuna or cup of chickpeas.’
Britain is experiencing an ageing society where older adults – those aged 65 years and over – will constitute one-fifth of the population by 2027, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Kate adds: ‘This ageing population, along with the associated diseases of ageing, are placing a strain on our already heavily burdened National Health Service.’
The study was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.