As a fitness professional trying to grow his business, I always encounter pretty much the same objections, some of these objections, however, seems to keep coming back more than others and they make absolutely no sense whatsoever. The goal of this article is to address in the most scientific and clear manner these objections that seem so deeply rooted in the untrained population.
Before I go any further I have to explain a clear distinction between two words that I will use extensively in this article: Exercising and Training. Even though these two might seem quite similar, they really are not. Exercising is basically a form of dynamic, random, somewhat athletic activity that may results in caloric expenditure and elevated heart rate (walking the dog, cycling with the family on Sundays, swimming whenever the weather is nice enough, etc…). Training is something that is planned, thought out, regular and specifically aimed at progressing in a particular modality of exercise.
Training might seem reserved or limited to athletes, this is a total misconception, any goal in life cannot be reached without an amount of training, you have to do something over and over, while slowly increasing the difficulty in order to “get better” at something or in order to achieve a “goal”. In the realm of health and fitness, your goal doesn’t have to be an Olympic medal, it might simply be loosing a few pounds, gaining muscle, getting rid of that nasty lower back pain, not being out of breath after walking up a flight of stairs, etc… Exercising might induce, with a lot of luck and on an extended and unpredictable time frame some of these benefits but it usually does not.
This has already been explained extensively by Mark Rippetoe in one of his articles for T-Nation if you are interested in this matter.
And this leads to the very first objection I want to address : “I don’t want to commit to a membership/pack of sessions”
People hate to commit, specially when it involves money, and even though I can understand when its about a 24 month ridiculously expensive broadband package, it doesn’t make any sense to offer “pay as you go” training sessions (whether it involves a class of many people or if it is an individual session) first it is a nightmare from a business standpoint for the provider of the service and if the potential trainee isn’t ready to commit for a relatively long period of time (a few months to a year) then they might as well not even begin: Indeed, if they seek some kind of regular exercise (training…) it is because they have a goal in mind, whatever that goal might be, they will never reach it by attending whenever they can fit it into their busy schedule (meaning probably not very often).
IF you have a goal that is related to health and fitness, whether it is very specific, of you just want to “get in shape” (which is basically a combination of several very specific goals) you need to commit to it weekly at the very least (three times a week if you want to see some quicker results).
Now the other two objections, which are really the same phrased differently : “I am too old for this” or “It’s really not for me”
Well, if you are interested in prematurely losing your mobility, coordination and eventually the ability to be physically self-dependent… then it’s definitely not for you.
The two big mistakes people make is to take their health for granted and then after a certain point, assume that the disabilities brought along by old age are fatalities.
Most people still see training and more particularly resistance training (even though cardiovascular based training carries lots of benefits, it is by far insufficient to maintain an overall healthy and functional body on its own) as something odd and foreign that a small part of the population practices as a weird kind of hobby or pass-time. The truth of the matter is, resistance training used to be part of our daily lives (sprinting, climbing, carrying odd objects, throwing, wrestling, pulling, pushing) we have just slowly evicted it with the help of technology. Technology in itself isn’t a bad thing, but we are much too unaware of its consequences on our physical abilities.
The principle of “if you don’t use it, you lose it” directly applies to physical fitness and is known under a more scientific name as the SAID principle. SAID meaning : Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. Meaning your body will directly and relatively quickly adapt to whatever stimulus you impose on it. Usually it is used to explain the fact that the body adapts to training by getting stronger, faster, more flexible, etc… But we can also look at it the other way around : if the only physical stimulus we provide our body with is sitting on the couch, sitting at work, sitting in your car, sitting… you get the idea. Well the body will become very good at sitting, but not much else, it will adapt to the specific imposed demand. The hip flexor muscles will shorten, the hip extensor muscles will lengthen (making the body both less mobile and weaker in the posterior chain, see article on posture), and we will probably end up experiencing lower back pain like 70% of the population, and look hunched over even when standing.
The good thing to know as well is that muscle is a very “expensive” tissue for your body to build and to maintain (the main reason why getting big and strong takes A LOT of time and dedication), it consumes a lot of energy (calories) and necessitates a lot of complex cellular processes that disrupts the homeostasis our body desperately tries to maintain. So unless we clearly signify the importance of our muscles to the body by using and stimulating them, it will just let them atrophy and waste away.
And this leads to the meat and potatoes of this article : Physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of sarcopenia.
But what is Sarcopenia?
It is an age-related loss of skeletal muscle mass, strength and function that is triggered by different factors, some are out of our control but others such as physical inactivity are environmental factors that can be manipulated to our advantage. Physical inactivity has been found to be the third leading cause of death in the United States and plays an important role in the development of chronic illnesses of aging, an analysis estimated that in 2000, sarcopenia was responsible for $18.5 billion in health care costs in the United-States. It has been found that, if left unattended, the loss of muscle mass between 20 and 80 years old can amount to 35-40%.
But let’s take a closer look at how and why we lose muscle with age.
First it is important to remember that every cell in the body has a limited lifespan and needs to be replaced after a while, what happens with aging is that our ability to replace those dying cells is impaired for different reasons.
Here are the two main reasons why we lose muscle strength and function:
1. Motor neurons (specially fast twitch) start dying after a certain age. A motor neuron is, as its name suggests, a neuron, responsible for activating a bunch of muscle fibers (together they form a motor unit). As the motor neuron dies, the muscle fibers either die as well, leading to muscle atrophy or they are reinnervated by another motor neuron, usually a slow twitch motor neuron, making those muscle fibers less efficient and coordinated.
2.On the endocrine (hormonal) side of things, the production of IGF-1, Testosterone, DHEA, and Growth Hormone decreases. All these hormones are responsible for the growth of different tissues, and specially for protein synthesis, both contractile (muscles) and metabolic (cell function). To summarize, the decline in anabolic hormones impairs the body’s ability to synthesize essential amino acids from unessential ones and the ability to synthesize proteins… period.
Therefore, as we grow older, it is more difficult for the body to renew muscle tissue.
That is why, TO SOME DEGREE, sarcopenia is a fatality, we do grow weaker with time.
However resistance training has been established as one of the most efficient way of delaying and compensating for that loss of muscle. Indeed, current research indicate that elderly muscle can adapt positively to resistance training just like young muscle. It has also been shown that resistance training earlier in life (middle age) reduces and delays the appearance of sarcopenia later on.
Again we can apply the “use it or lose it” principle, even though a loss of muscle strength and function is inevitable, the more and the earlier we solicit these muscles the longer and the better they will work.
To give you a very vivid example, masters lifters of eighty years of age have been found to have the same muscle power than untrained sixty years old… The resistance training they had been practicing most of their lives gave them an advantage of twenty years over untrained people of the same age… pretty interesting no ?
By the same token, studies have shown that masters athletes in general seem to remain mostly unaffected by chronic health conditions that plague most elderly people.
The age-related decline in endocrine production has another unpleasant consequence, which is a severe decrease in bone mineral density (bones becoming more and more fragile) that leads to osteopenia and if left unattended to osteoporosis, and it has been scientifically established that resistance training increases bone mineral density over time. For more information and solutions regarding that matter click here.
Another great benefit of strength training is that it actually promotes the production of the very hormones that we tend to lack as we get older, and the benefits of these hormones go way beyond muscle building and physical capacity, as explained in our very first article: IGF-1 (and therefore Growth hormone since one generates the other) promotes the creation of new neurons in the Hippocampus, a mechanism that helps preventing early signs of cognitive impairment. The actual neuromuscular challenge of mastering new movement patterns can also be regarded as an enriched environment, which, again, promotes neural survival in the Hippocampus.
As you can see the benefits of resistance training are limitless!
Another excellent reason to build or maintain muscle mass as we grow older is our BMR.
Let’s explain BMR :
BMR stands for Basal Metabolic Rate, it’s basically the amount of calories we burn daily just to sustain life. As I mentioned earlier in this article, muscle is a very “expensive” tissue to build and maintain, meaning the more muscle the body builds, the more calories it burns and the more muscle the body has to maintain, the more calories the body burns… So the more muscle we have, the more calories we burn.
And again this is why sarcopenia is so bad and why it is linked to other conditions, it has been scientifically established that the BMR strongly declines with age and that most of that decline is due to loss of muscle mass. That decline in BMR leads to serious fat gains, leading to a host of chronic conditions ranging from atherosclerosis, insulin resistance, Type II diabetes, heart diseases, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and the list goes on.
So by engaging in a resistance training regimen, we can at the same time maintain the body’s functionality and efficiency (all things considered) and ensure that our BMR doesn’t drop too severely with age.
Another thing that can affect positively the way we age is our diet. As mentioned earlier, our ability to synthesize essentials amino acids and therefore proteins declines. So making sure we consume enough protein is paramount. The daily recommended amount of protein is of 0.8gr per kg of bodyweight, for elderly people however, we can safely assume that it is more (never over 2gr per kg of bodyweight!).
In this case, supplements can be a good option since it is sometimes hard to make sure that we get the right kind of amino acids. Amino Acids or BCAA (branched chain amino acid) supplements are a great way to boost our protein consumption, without having to consume insane (and unhealthy) amounts of meat or dairy products that also happen to contain a lot of saturated fat. Another form of supplementation that might be useful is creatine, indeed even if creatine isn’t as potent on older people (over 60 years old) it still can help a great deal by reducing muscle fatigue.
Now I know that I have mentioned master athletes and specifically weightlifters, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be an athlete or train like one to benefit from resistance training, and it doesn’t mean that you have to use weight either. There are all kinds of resistances: Gymnasts who are probably some of the strongest and most muscular athletes out there only use the resistance created by gravity against their own body. Water is a form of resistance as well, therefore swimming, if performed regularly with a degree of challenge, can qualify as resistance training. However, swimming doesn’t use and train the basic movement patterns that we use in everyday life and that we need to be proficient at (squatting, pushing, pulling, stepping).
And as much as weights are an excellent form of resistance, going to the gym and moving a few dumbbells around between two sets of biceps curls doesn’t qualify as “training”, it is merely a useless form of exercise. Programming and professional advice is needed. If you can’t afford or do not like the concept of personal training, then you’d be better off joining a group class to ensure some kind of structure.
Never think that you are too weak or too old to start, simply standing up from a chair and sitting back down (a high squat…) is a form of resistance training, whatever creates a real challenge when performing basic movement patterns is resistance. And any small progress is still progress. Do not get discouraged by comparing yourself with people of another age or another level, just try to be a little stronger than you were the day before, set goals for yourself and do not see aging as a fatality.
Gary C. Sieck Journal of Applied Physiology October 2003, Volume 95.
ACSM current comment on the physiology of aging by Michael G. Bemben, Ph.D., FACSM.
The Western Journal of Medicinee December 1990, The Biology and Physiology of Aging. Itamar B. Abrass, MD.
“Aging, the social context”, Chapter four “The physiology of aging” Leslie Morgan, Suzanne Kunkel, 2001.
Physiology of aging, Dr. Ed Soltis,Department of Neurosciences, Medical University of South Carolina, Spring 2005.
Aging and the motor unit, sports medicine & doping studies, 2011 Jennifer A. Bunn. Department of Exercise Science, Campbell University.
The journal of nutrition, Age-Related Sarcopenia in Humans Is Associated with Reduced Synthetic Rates of Specific Muscle Proteins. D. N. Proctor, P. Balagopal and K. S. Nair. 1998.
The Journal of nutrition, Sarcopenia and Age-Related Changes in Body Composition and Functional Capacity. William J. Evans And Wayne W. Campbell, 1993.
Scandinavian Journal of medicine and science in sports, Role of the nervous system in sarcopenia and muscle atrophy with aging: strength training as a countermeasure. P. Aagaard, C. Suetta, P. Caserotti, S. P. Magnusson, M. Kjaer. 2010.
The American Journal of clinical nutrition, Role of dietary protein in the sarcopenia of aging. Douglas Paddon-Jones, Kevin R. Short, Wayne W. Campbell, Elena Volpi, and Robert R.Wolfe. 2008.
Journal of applied physiology, Resistance exercise as a countermeasure to disuse-induced bone loss. L. C. Shackelford,A. D. LeBlanc,T. B. Driscoll,H. J. Evans,N. J. Rianon,S. M. Smith,E. Spector,D. L. Feeback,and D. Lai. 2004.
www.medscape.com, Leucine with resistance training for the treatment of Sarcopenia. Thomas L. Lenz, PharmaD, M, PAPHS. 2010.