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How to slow muscle loss and get fitter as you age

Powerful resistance training strengthens both muscle and soft tissue, which helps counter the effects of ageing

Doing plyometric exercises like skipping, as you age, strengthens your body to resist falls
Doing plyometric exercises like skipping, as you age, strengthens your body to resist falls (Pexels/Yan Krukau)

Years ago, when my father turned 40, he was given a rather large card stating he was “over the hill”. I take it that the basic assumption is that once you hit that age, it is “all downhill” from there. Having almost reached that age, I can attest to the rapid decline of my popping hip joints. Suddenly, things ache that never used to hurt and rolling out of bed has become a recipe for disaster.

Although men and women both age, society sadly treats women like we are delicate flowers whose bones can turn to dust at the slightest bump. We then take extra caution with women in exercise classes as if they may crumble before our eyes. If we see an incredibly fit woman in her 50s and beyond, we treat her as the exception and certainly not the rule. Thanks to science, it’s time to set this notion aside. 

New findings are being published that women can exercise to a higher degree than we assumed all these years, and should. Purposeful, powerful movement in our later years can improve our mobility and stability, minimize our aches and pains, increase our energy, and blast our dreaded midsection weight gain. However, to achieve this ultimate goal, we must first overcome our ingrained belief that we are weak. We can all be the exception to the rule.

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In fact, I have the perfect quote that can inspire you to make a change. “It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength which his body is capable” – is a quote from Socrates, one which I have shamelessly adapted in my coaching practice to represent women rather than men. What I love about this quote is the word ‘capable’, which suggests that health and fitness endeavors are about discovering how far your body can go (within reason). You don’t have to start fit –you can become fit at any age. The choice is yours. But to understand how you can become stronger and fitter as you age, we must first understand what’s happening in your body. Once we know the science, we can make better decisions in the gym.

As we age, both men and women experience a natural regression in muscle mass called ‘sarcopenia’ where we slowly lose muscle mass that supports our movements, starting at the age of 30. Muscle is very metabolically expensive and helps us burn more calories throughout the day, so having less muscle means it’s easier for us to put on more weight. Beyond that, having less muscle and strength can lead to increased injury. Therefore, the overarching goal for women is to strength train to decrease the rate of muscle loss from our bodies. 

However, women have a different hormone phenomenon: the menopausal transition, where our estrogen levels deplete over time. Decreasing estrogen levels affects our bone health, making us more vulnerable to bone-softening conditions such as osteoporosis and osteopenia. At first glance, this may appear to support the idea that we are fragile. According to Dr. Stacy Sims, a leading figure in training menopausal athletes, there is a workaround: powerful movements, plyometrics and sprint interval training can circumvent the loss of estrogen and teach our bodies to build muscle in a new way.

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Resistance Training
As Dr. Sims tells us, heavy and powerful resistance training doesn’t just build stronger muscle; it strengthens other soft tissues. The benefits don’t stop there; the effort required to lift heavyweights also improves your cardiovascular capacity and stimulates bone remodeling, strengthening your bones. 
The best kind of exercises to do when focusing on heavy resistance training are compound exercises, which include multiple muscle groups to achieve the best results. If you’re new to these kinds of exercises, hire a personal trainer to teach you proper muscle engagement and form so that you mitigate your risk of injury.

But it doesn’t just stop with strength. Dr. Stacy Sims wants you to up your training capacity to include jumps and sprints as you age. The more capable we become at jumping and landing with force, the more our bodies become stable and strong, resisting falls that can cause harm. Dr. Sims says, “When you do plyometrics, you wake up some otherwise very quiet genes inside your muscle cells that stimulate those cells to improve power and even the composition of the muscle itself in a way that improves the integrity of the muscle, its contractile strength, and its response and reaction time.” 
You can start building your confidence with jumps by including small ones at first. Start by lowering yourself into a squat position, feet hip-width apart, and “jumping” to the tips of your toes and quickly lowering yourself back down. Try a set of five or six, with a 30-second break, for 5-6 sets. Once you feel comfortable with straight vertical ones, try lateral jumping next!

Sprint Intervals
Finally, sprint training is one that we rarely hear about outside of athletic circles. However, sprint interval training is highly effective at burning fat that may be accumulating around your midsection. Dr. Sims recommends short, effective bursts that don’t elevate your cortisol levels. For example, you can start with 30 seconds of going at your maximum capacity and 30 seconds of recovery speed for no more than ten minutes in duration. You can do sprint intervals on stationary bikes, treadmills and the elliptical. Of course, the key with any plan that includes high intensity, plyometrics and heavy lifting is a substantial dose of rest and recovery. So, allow one full day of rest in between heavy work days.

Jen Thomas is a master women's health coach.

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