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Strength Training for Life

Benefits beyond Muscle

How things have changed since the 1950s when my high school pentathlon coach told me that lifting weights makes you muscle bound. "Don't do it," he said.

For many years, aerobic exercise was thought to be practically synonymous with fitness and health. Weight training or bodybuilding was considered mainly cosmetic. Dr. Ken Cooper wrote in his landmark book Aerobics, published in 1968, that lifting weights is “like putting a lovely new coat of paint on an automobile that really needs an engine overhaul.”

That changed in a major way with the publication of the book BIOMARKERS: The 10 Determinates of Aging You Can Control (Simon and Schuster, 1991) by William Evans, PhD, and Irwin H. Rosenberg, MD, professors of nutrition and medicine, respectively, at Tufts University. Strength training was at the heart of their Biomarkers program. It began to take its rightful place as an equal partner with aerobic exercise. Moreover, strength training became the senior partner for taking the worry out of aging.

That trend has continued apace as we learn more and more about the benefits of strength training. The past year has been especially bountiful in uncovering the health benefits of strength training. In addition to learning more about training at 60 and beyond, we have seen progress against all-cause mortality, obesity, and physiological improvement in heart function.

Let’s look at some of the new research findings in 2017, beginning with training the lead biomarkers.

Less Is More

The authors of Biomarkers coined the term “sarcopenia” to describe an ailment that affects many old people and deprives them of their independence. “Sarco” refers to flesh, “penia” means a reduction in amount. So sarcopenia describes an overall weakening of the body caused by a change in body composition in favor of fat and at the expense of muscle. That’s important, according to Evans and Rosenberg, because muscle mass is responsible for the vitality of our whole physiological apparatus.

Muscle mass and strength are our primary biomarkers. They’re the lead dominoes, so to speak. When they start to topple, the other biomarkers soon follow. On the other hand, when muscle mass and strength are maintained, the other indicia are likewise maintained. That's where strength training comes to our aid; it’s pivotal if you want to stay young longer.

A study reported in the December, 2017, Experimental Gerontology compared strength-training routines to see which is best for building muscle in your 60s and beyond. They found that training hard more often is not necessarily more productive.

Volunteers between the ages of 60 and 75 gained more muscle and strength by training hard twice a week than three times a week. What's more, they did even better by inserting a light day in between the two hard days. “Two bouts per week are more practical…and HH is pretty effective,” senior researcher Marcas Bamman, a professor at the University of Alabama, said. “However, there seems to be added value to the midweek ‘L’ day for overall functional capacity, so when feasible I would still recommend HLH,” he added.

When asked about the result, McMaster University Professor Stuart Phillips, who was not involved in the study, explained that there is no one best way for seniors to train. “There are so many variables in resistance training—sets, rest, per cent of one-rep max, exercise order, exercises to include, free weights versus machines, periodization—that I don’t see how you can find what’s optimal,” he related.

Alex Hutchinson, writing in The Globe and Mail online, termed the new finding “a useful starting point.”

“Three days are no better than two,” he continued. “And perhaps most importantly, training keeps working throughout your life.” You are never too old to improve.

Over 30 weeks of resistance training, the untrained subjects in the HLH group added about four and a half pounds of muscle, on average, and increased their strength by 20 to 30 per cent.

The take home message for seniors is to keep lifting (start if you've been inactive), but don’t overdo it. More is not necessarily better. Training success comes from a balance of stress and rest.

You can read the abstract of the study online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28964826

You’ll have to pay to read the entire study.

Lift to Live

Two new studies, one from the University of Indiana and the other from the University of Sydney (Australia) focus on the connection between strength and longevity.

The study from Indiana included 4,449 participants aged 50 year or older who had their strength and muscle mass assessed between 1999 and 2002. Fast forward a decade and the researchers found that those with low muscle strength were about twice as likely to die as those with normal muscle strength—regardless of whether they had low muscle mass. Function was apparently more important than size. That, however, doesn’t mean that muscle mass doesn’t matter. Those with both low strength and low muscle mass were 2.66 times as likely to die during the follow up years.

A good reserve of muscle mass can be important if you have to spend time in the hospital or are immobilized for other reasons. When your muscles go, you go.

The second study was a test of the public health guidelines which recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity—PLUS two days of muscle strengthening activities each week. Many blow off the strength building recommendation or look on it as cosmetic. Bad idea.

The researchers found that participation in any strength-building exercise was associated with a 23 percent reduction in all-cause mortality and a 31 percent reduction in cancer mortality. Aerobic exercise alone did not reduce the risk of cancer-related death. On the other hand, strength training alone didn’t confer any protection against heart failure. (See below for evidence that strength training can strengthen the heart.)

By the same token, brushing off aerobic exercise also proved to be a bad idea. The best outcome of all—a 29 percent reduction in all-cause mortality—came from meeting both the aerobic and strength-training recommendations.

Another finding gives comfort to those that don't like the idea of training in a gym or fitness center. Bodyweight exercises were shown to be just as beneficial as gym-based strength training.

“Many people are intimidated by gyms, the costs or the culture they promote, so it’s great to know that anyone can do classic exercises like triceps dips, sit-ups, push-ups or lunges in their own home or local park and potentially reap the same health benefits,” said lead researcher Associate Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis.

Bodyweight exercises work, but weight training offers far more variety and progressivity;
being able to gradually and conveniently increase the resistance as you grow stronger is the key to long-term gains.
Bodyweight exercises
can, of course, be added from time to time.
Photo by Laszlo Bencze

You’ll find more details about both studies online in Outside Magazine: https://www.outsideonline.com/2263346/delay-death-lift-weights.

Strength Training Fights Obesity

It is no surprise that exercise aids weight loss. But the difference between resistance training and aerobic exercise surprised researchers. Older adults maintained more muscle and lost twice as much fat by combining strength training and calorie reduction. (Evans and Rosenberg told us that strength training changes body composition in favor of muscle at the expense of fat.)

Over the course of 18 months, researchers from Wake Forest University followed 249 overweight or obese subjects (average age 67) on three different weight loss regimens. One group used diet alone, the next added aerobic exercise (walking), and the last group combined diet and weight training.  

Muscle mass retention is the variable to watch.

“In general agreement with [earlier] trials, we observed a significant reduction in the percentage of total body mass lost as lean mass when resistance training is added to weight loss (10%) compared to weight loss alone (16%),” lead author Kristen Beavers and her team wrote. While both diet alone and diet plus resistance training groups lost muscle, resistance training saved lean mass, adding to fat loss.

But there’s more.

“What is surprising, however,” the researchers added, “is that we did not find a lean mass sparing effect of weight loss plus aerobic exercise compared to weight loss alone.” Walking burned more calories, but had no muscle sparing benefit.

Beavers emphasized in a press release that it is important for older adults to maintain muscle while losing weight. (As we have seen muscle drives our whole physiological apparatus.)

If that’s what your goal is, then our data would suggest that resistance training is a better exercise modality to add to weight loss than walking alone or just losing weight without any exercise,” she added.

To read the entire study: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.21977/full

(It seems likely that sprint intervals would’ve saved muscle mass where walking failed. Use muscle and you won't lose it. Resistance training, sprint intervals, and walking may be the ideal combination.)

Lift Your Heart

While the benefits of resistance training on skeletal muscles is well established, the effect on our most important muscle—the heart—has remained an open question. It has been thought that endurance training and resistance training produce different types of adaptation in the heart. That endurance training leads to thickening and expansion of the walls of the pumping chambers of the heart (the ventricles), whereas the pressure load in resistance training increases heart muscle mass and wall thickness, without a substantial change in cavity size. This is thought to make the ventricles work harder pushing blood into the lungs and throughout the body.

Researchers from Germany set out to test this theory of unbalanced adaptation using advanced MRI technology.

Radiologist Michael Scarf and colleagues randomly assigned 40 untrained middle-aged men into two groups: a high-intensity resistance training (HIRT) group and 40 roughly matched participants to an inactive control group. The HIRT group did single sets to failure addressing the main muscle groups of the body two to three days a week for 22 weeks. All subjects underwent cardiac MRI before and after the study period, measuring changes in their heart.

They found significant changes in both the left and right ventricles in the HIIT group, “indicating balanced cardiac adaptation without a preponderance of one remodeling mechanism.”

They also found that stroke volume significantly increased in the HIRT group, while myocardial strain and strain rates did not change following resistance training.

The authors concluded that a relatively short period of whole body HIRT can lead to marked physiological improvements in ventricular characteristics and function.

“As our study comprises a relatively broad range with a relevant distribution of physical characteristics, risk factor profile, and fitness level we hypothesize that physiologic cardiac adaptations to HIRT found in our investigation are generalizable to a large part of the population,” Scarf et al wrote.

So it seems that we can add improvement in heart function to the list of strength training benefits.

You can read the study online without charge: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0189204

For more about the benefits of strength training on the cardiovascular system, see Marvelous Mechanisms of the Heart http://www.cbass.com/heartmechanisms.htm

*  *  *

The key message is to keep exercising as you age: resistance training, interval training, and walking. Remember to allow time for recovery between workouts.

The gap between those that exercise and challenge themselves and those that don’t grows wider with each passing year. It’s never too late to get started; any amount of exercise is better than none. Check with your health care provider before making major changes in your lifestyle.

(For the latest on interval training, see http://www.cbass.com/psychologyintervaltraining.html )

January 2018

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