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Strength to strength

Not just for bodybuilders keen on bulking up their biceps, pumping iron is for anyone hoping to stay strong, flexible and nimble as they age.

It’s well-known that staying active is key to healthy ageing. But do some forms

of physical activity have greater pay-offs than others? Growing evidence suggests that weight lifting has impressive health benefits, especially as we grow older.

Weight lifting (or strength training) incorporates a range of weighted, controlled movements that work the muscles in your upper and lower body. Whether using free weights, weight machines, or your own body as resistance, strength training is an activity in which most healthy adults of all ages can safely engage.

With the power to improve balance, strength, coordination and flexibility, strength training is a top choice for older people wanting to avoid a sedentary lifestyle. Furthermore, many studies have shown strength training can improve bone health, a significant factor when considering the impact that falls have on older people.

“Strength training puts a good, healthy stress on our bones and ensures they stay strong. We need to maintain our bone mineral density to prevent fractures and breaks as we age,” says John Donaghey, certified personal trainer and owner of Human Design Health and Fitness in North Sydney.

When considering muscle strength can start to decline at age 30 (but that decline accelerates rapidly once you hit 60), taking up strength training could help counteract age-associated loss in strength and muscle condition. 

New beginnings

So how do you begin pumping iron? Donaghey believes working with

a registered personal trainer or exercise physiologist is a good start. After undergoing movement assessments and health-related measurements, the fitness professional will then determine the best starting point.

“You don’t have to stay with a trainer forever, but professional guidance is helpful for the first few months to prevent injury and ensure you’re performing exercise at the correct intensity,” Donaghey says.

Sessions typically include a balanced mix of exercises for the front and back of the body. Free weight and machine-based exercises are usually performed in conjunction with manoeuvres that use your bodyweight as resistance (such as squats).

Recovery zone

Spurred on by seeing positive changes in their body, many beginners are tempted to go

hell for leather. Donaghey warns against this overzealous approach as attempting to lift heavy weights or failing to leave enough time between sessions can be detrimental to your health.

“Beware of the mindset that you can still do what you did 20 years ago. You have the rest of your life to get fit and strong – it doesn’t need to happen in six weeks,” Donaghey says. “Exercise that causes any pain other than muscular fatigue should be avoided, as should technically difficult exercises like barbell squats and deadlifts.”

As with all exercise, allowing time for your body to recover is smart. This is especially important for older bodies that take longer to recover from bouts of exercise. “Mixing higher intensity sessions with lower intensity sessions throughout the week is a good idea,” Donaghey says. “It’s wise to leave at least 48 hours between strength sessions to let your muscles, joints and tendons recover.”

The power of lifting

Accustomed to working with clients aged over 60, Donaghey has seen first-hand how strength training can change lives for the better – no matter what age you are.

“I’ve seen people increase their strength by up to 50 per cent after just six weeks,” he says. “Over time, people become more confident in daily life and like the feeling of getting stronger.”

Some of Donaghey’s clients report that lifting weights makes them feel up to 10 years younger. With that in mind, pumping iron could be just the thing you need to stay healthy and strong with age.