You can lift weights whatever shape you’re in – and as Nigella Lawson has found, the health benefits are both physical and psychological
If you’re 60 plus, now is the time to start weight training. If you’re put off by the obscure terminology and the feeling that you have to be a certain shape or age to start lifting, according to former exercise-phobe Nigella Lawson, 63, taking up weight-bearing exercise has been a revelation, making her feel stronger both physically and mentally.
The culture that has evolved around weightlifting is somewhat off-putting for older people. I have been going to the gym for more than 40 years and I can say with some authority you don’t need protein shakes with names like “Max Bulk”, you really never need to wear a vest top and, most importantly, like Nigella, you don’t need to be 26.
Weight training can improve your mature years immeasurably, very quickly and without a huge sacrifice of time. The gym is not a magical temple in which the young hone their bodies, it’s just a big room filled with heavy objects and we, the midlifers, should enter without fear or embarrassment.
The amazing benefits of lifting weights after 60
You can become stronger and you can build muscle – it’s absolutely not too late. The benefits of becoming stronger include better control of blood sugar, reduced chance of damaging falls, stronger bones and improved mental health.
Research into older people and weight training is an exciting field – new health benefits are being discovered all the time. Studies show what is possible for those in their 60s, 70s and even into their 90s, exposing a broad range of positive outcomes.
Prof Maria Fiatarone Singh, a geriatrician at the University of Sydney, has been publishing research on exercise and older people for decades and is a leading figure in the field. She expresses wonderment that more people aren’t encouraged by doctors and enabled by health services to try working out with weights.
She says without some kind of resistance training we will lose 40-50 per cent of our muscle mass over a lifetime but weight training can stop and even reverse that loss. “You don’t get it all back if you’ve lost 40-50 per cent of muscle but you can make dramatic strength gains. Muscle mass changes are smaller but they are there.”
The physical benefits of lifting weights
This muscle loss takes place, typically, between the ages of 50 and 80 and means falls, incapacity and generally being less capable but the reasons to lift go far beyond the obvious. We tend to lose the fast twitch muscle fibre which generates power for quick movement, meaning we become less able to react and adjust if we slip or trip. Our Bones respond to the demands placed on them becoming stronger when exposed to the load-bearing involved in weight training.
“Weightlifting works for both prevention and treatment of osteoporosis, bone density responds to this exercise, as well as treatment of hip fracture,” says Prof Singh. “It helps cardiac disease; both prevention and treatment of coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure, as well as diabetes and kidney disease. There is very strong evidence that weightlifting exercise treats depression and dementia.
The mental health benefits of lifting weights
Probably the most fascinating and counterintuitive benefit is the improvement in brain health. The simple act of lifting heavy weights has a positive effect on complex psychological problems.
“In the treatment of depression, high-intensity lifting was more effective than antidepressants,” says Prof Singh. “We don’t know exactly what the mechanism is – there are probably eight or nine biological causes as well as psychological factors like self-efficacy.”
A meta analysis of the research into the benefits of resistance training for people suffering from depression, Association of Efficacy of Resistance Training with Depressive Symptoms, found that “resistance exercise training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults regardless of health status”.
Another study that placed older people on a 12-week programme, training three times a week, and lifting weights that were reasonably heavy for them found improvements in psychological health. The exact way weights create these improvements in mental health is not fully understood but some theorise it may be connected to hormonal changes caused by lifting. It may also be caused by improvements in self-esteem. The feeling of being capable is one of the most compelling benefits of lifting. We can shuffle uncertainly into our 60s and 70s or we can stride confidently.
Why you can build muscle and become stronger over 60
Frailty is the looming threat as we age. Traditionally the over-60s are pictured practising yoga and going for walks rather than exploring explosive strength-based exercise. The belief has been that we are fragile beings who break when we fall who can’t adapt to new stimuli and generally need to spend a lot of time with a blanket on our knees.
Prof Singh has studied people in their 80s and 90s and is well-placed to dispel these myths.
“We don’t have to accept this idea that there is no other trajectory other than going downhill. A lot of people in the community have heard about weightlifting, the problem is it hasn’t made its way into medicine yet. The more frail you are, the more important weight training is, it’s not true to say frail people need very gentle exercise .”
Samuel Quinn, the personal training lead at Nuffield Health, says: “Even with a low baseline strength or muscle mass, numerous studies have demonstrated significant strength and muscle gain improvements in ageing populations through training three times per week, with three to four sets of eight to twelve repetitions. The stereotype is shifting, and now it’s not just younger people who want to lose weight, increase strength/endurance, look and feel good.”
The perfect way to start weightlifting at 60 for men and women
If you haven’t ever lifted anything beyond your Waitrose Bag for Life here is a protocol to follow, informed by the latest research. Prof Urs Granacher is head of Exercise and Human Movement Science at the University of Freiburg and has worked on a number of studies into the effects of exercise on health and ageing. He recommends dividing your journey into the weight room into three distinct phases.
Phase one is learning the movements and becoming familiar with the environment. “Your first two weeks should be spent getting acquainted with the equipment. For our studies, we usually have people in pairs so they can help each other. It’s important they get a feeling for the technique. This should be supervised by a qualified trainer to avoid potential injury’.
Essentially, before lifting weights heavy enough to create a positive effect you need to master the technique and feel completely at home with the movements. Think about hiring a personal trainer at least for the first few months of weight training. They can assess any weaknesses and pre-existing issues, can guide you safely and prepare you for some tough resistance training. Bad form makes you seven times more likely to suffer an injury, so it’s worth taking seriously.
Phase two is moving incrementally to high intensity. This means lifting weights 70-80 per cent of your maximum upper range. Everyone will start with a different level of strength, the most you could lift once is a base measure that enables you (with the help of a trainer) to calculate how much you should be lifting in a session. Alternatively, you can work from perceived effort – how tough it feels – less precise but effective for someone starting out.
Prof Granacher recommends three sets of 8-12 lifts with a two-minute rest in between. The important thing is to focus your mind on each lift as you do it – intention is crucial. The muscle fibres we lose if we do not do any resistance training are fast-twitch fibres – these are only engaged when we lift with sufficient intensity and intent. “This phase should last at least eight-to-12 weeks, so you are building that foundation of strength.”
Phase three is the power phase. Prof Granacher says research shows power training has the double benefit of building strength but also improving coordination and our ability to negotiate the challenges of everyday life.
How many times a week should a 60 year old lift weights
Power training means dropping the weight to about 40-50 per cent of your maximum lift (so each rep feels well within your capacity and you’re nowhere near the top end of your range) but making the push element of the exercise as explosive and fast as possible. So if you imagine a leg press machine, power training would involve trying to push the weight as fast as possible and then lowering it back into place more slowly. Do three to five sets, with five to six repetitions in each set.
“What was noticed when the studies on strength training in older people emerged was there wasn’t much benefit to mobility,” says Prof Granacher. It was only when older people undertook power training that they saw their mobility and coordination improve, he confirms. These are the abilities that keep us out of the care home when we hit our later years. Once you’re in phase three, you can combine the high-intensity training and the power training and glean all the benefits of both. One or two sessions a week is sufficient to see results.
You don’t need weights to start weight training
Tony Barnbrook is a senior competing bodybuilder and personal trainer. At 54 he is as lean and muscular as any 20-something. He specialises in training clients in their 50s and 60s and has learned to work around the reality of bodies that may not have been handled with care over the years.
“I have a client waiting for a joint replacement. He’s been very sedentary, he lost weight and muscle. His mobility was compromised by too much time at a desk I work on getting his movement patterns back. Instead of a squat, he can get off a chair and sit back down, instead of deadlift he can pick his bag up off the floor and put it back,” says Tony. Working carefully around joint issues, blood pressure problems and poor mobility he builds older people to traditional weight training which they can continue for the rest of their lives.