Staying strong after retirement: How heavy resistance training can help

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A new study shows that heavy resistance training around retirement age can keep leg strength intact for years.

This exercise, which involves making muscles work against a force, has long-lasting benefits, according to results published in the journal BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine.

As people get older, their leg muscles weaken, which is a strong indicator of a higher risk of death.

Therefore, maintaining leg strength is crucial. With age, muscle mass and function naturally decline, affecting mobility and independence.

Resistance training, which includes exercises with weights, body weight, or resistance bands, can help counteract this decline. However, most studies have only looked at the effects over short periods (6-9 months).

The researchers wanted to see if a year of heavy resistance training would have lasting effects. They followed participants from the LIve active Successful Ageing (LISA) study, a large randomized controlled trial. The original trial showed that one year of heavy resistance training could maintain strength for at least 12 months.

In the study, healthy and active participants who had recently retired were divided into three groups.

They were grouped by sex, weight (BMI), and their ability to get up from a chair without assistance. One group lifted heavy weights three times a week (149 people), another group did moderate intensity training with body weight exercises and resistance bands three times a week (154 people), and the last group (148 people) continued their usual physical activity.

Researchers measured bone and muscle strength and body fat levels at the start of the trial and then again after 1, 2, and 4 years. After 4 years, 369 participants were reassessed: 128 from the heavy weights group, 126 from the moderate intensity group, and 115 from the comparison group. The average age of the participants was 71 years, and 61% were women. They were still active, averaging nearly 10,000 steps per day.

After 4 years, leg strength was preserved in the heavy weights group but decreased in the other two groups. This suggests that heavy resistance training might trigger nervous system changes that help maintain strength. This difference was statistically significant. Interestingly, there was no difference among the groups in leg extensor power (the ability to kick a pedal hard and fast), handgrip strength, or lean leg mass, all of which decreased across the board.

As for visceral fat (fat stored around the organs), levels stayed the same in both the heavy weights and moderate intensity groups but increased in the comparison group. This implies that some health benefits might not depend on the weight load or exercise intensity over the long term.

The researchers noted that the study participants were healthier and more active than average, so the results might not apply to everyone.

However, they concluded, “This study shows that heavy resistance training at retirement age can have long-term benefits. Therefore, we encourage older individuals to engage in heavy resistance training for better health.”

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