Is resistance training a good idea at my age?

Lets be honest: main-stream fitness media tends to focus on anyone between 18 and 35 with the bulk of articles, studies, and information that gets tossed out there. The truth, though, is that physical fitness should be considered a priority at every age, for every person. Today we’re going to look at the facts of Resistance Training at a variety of different age groups, including the benefits and the risks.

Without further ado, lets do this!

What is Resistance Training?

Also called Weight Training or Strength Training, this is when you use a weight, band, or other resistant structure to resist muscular contraction, thus making it harder to actually contract the muscle. Examples include lifting weights like the Bench Press or Deadlift, many body weight only movements like Push-ups and Sit-ups, and using resistance bands to add difficulty to functional movements like walking or standing from a squat. The end result is making it harder for a muscle to do the work it needs to do, and through that added workload you see added adaptation (i.e. you get stronger).

The basic and most common benefits of smart weight training are greater muscular strength, improved muscle tone and appearance, increased endurance and enhanced bone density. These can be reasonably expected for most age groups, as long as the training is appropriate in intensity and frequency. Lets look at how different age groups can benefit in additional ways, and some risks associated with training that should be mitigated when doing so.

Prepubescents (5-12 years)

For the last 30 years we’ve been under the impression that kids younger than late-teens shouldn’t be exercising using weights or other resistance training methods, but more recent research has shown that this is pretty short sighted. Far from being a dangerous thing, smart training for kids 5-12 years old has been shown to have a host of benefits, and only a few risks which are easy to account for.

Benefits

In several studies, kids who underwent modest training a few times per week for about two months were shown to have between 13-30% increase in overall strength, putting them above 71% of their peers of similar age and gender in physical capabilities. The length of training as well as the intensity and frequency play a factor, as expected. Some kids in the age range showed up to a 90% increase in strength after 8-20 weeks of training, as compared to control groups of their peers.

In addition to gross strength, resistance training has been shown to significantly improve:

  • power production
  • running velocity
  • change-of-direction speed
  • general motor performance
  • motor skill performance

One of the most interesting results is that kids who trained showed greater increases in these factors during the training, then the same kids who were tested after going into adolescence but having not trained in any significant way. We normally look at aging to be the best way for kids to get stronger and fitter throughout their development towards adulthood, but studies suggest that training can stimulate these positive effects to a larger degree. This argues not only for more physical activity in kids ages 5-12, but also that the training/physical activity continue as they grow older.

Risks

Risk of injury and over-training is just as present in Prepubescents as it is in older people. Kids should be encouraged to engage in physical activity 3-4 times per week for 45-60 minutes per session, much as an untrained Adolescent or Adult. Training more frequently or at a very high intensity too often opens the child up to injury as with their adult counterparts. Though commonly held as a belief in more recent decades, there is little to no scientifically verified evidence that physical training has any negative effect on the development of growth plates, bones, or muscles in younger children.

To reduce the risks associated with training, make sure that the intensity is appropriate to the individual child. They should be able to recover from activity well enough to talk and act normally within 5 minutes of stopping the workout, though moderate fatigue from the exertion is expected and should not be considered a reason not to train in the future. As with everyone, any reports of pain or injury should be taken seriously.

Lastly, most exercise equipment is designed for adult-sized bodies. Care should be taken to use equipment of the appropriate size/weight when training kids. Constant supervision during activity is recommended to reduce the risk of dropping/misusing equipment.

Adolescents (13-19 years)

Untrained adolescents typically have a greater work capacity than untrained Prepubescents, but may actually be less physically capable than younger kids who have been training for some time. In the last section we talked about how trained kids at younger ages can surpass the physical abilities of untrained kids at older ages. As they age, kids should continue regular physical exercise, or if they did not start before puberty, should be enrolled in a program that encourages them to be regularly active 3-4 days per week for 45-60 minutes per session.

Benefits

Similar benefits are seen in teens as we saw in younger kids, with increases in strength, endurance, and work capacity over time based on an extended training program. In addition, adolescents who participated in sports experience fewer instances of injury when they train year-round as compared to those who only exercise during sports season. Common injuries which were prevented – or where their severity was decreased – include knee pains (that could result in surgery) and overuse injuries. The reduction in sports injuries was as high as 50% in some populations, showing that regular training has a huge benefit for being able to continue to play sports later in life.

Teenage girls, especially, show great benefits from training regularly. The added benefit lies in the development of musculature in comparison to neuromuscular adaptations. Basically, as girls age their muscles get bigger and stronger, but this may cause joint issues if they aren’t also exercising regularly to help their brain, nerves, and neurons adapt to their new body. Typical issues that can result from lack of exercise include joint problems when jumping/landing (knock-knees) with the potential to get worse as they age. It’s unclear why this issue is more common in young girls than in young boys.

Risks

The risks are identical to Prepubescents in most ways, though Adolescents typically have a higher starting physical capacity for work than younger kids, when both groups are equally untrained. The size of equipment may still be an issue into the middle-teen years depending on how quickly the Adolescent is growing, but by 15-17 years old they should be able to use most adult equipment without undue safety issues. Again, be sure to size the equipment for each athlete.

Young Adults (20-35 years)

This is the time when most people know they should be working out – though whether or not they do is another matter entirely! The body reaches peak levels of the most important hormones late in the teen years, with joints and muscles settling into their adult forms somewhere around 20 years old. At this point, the body is capable of training for most sports activities including body building, long distance running, and other pursuits. Young Adults should be engaging in regular physical activity just like the kids, with 3-4 sessions of at least 45 minutes per workout. In addition, the intensity of the workouts typically have a higher starting point than in the younger populations, with heavier weights and longer sessions being possible after a ramp-up period, and typically have a higher physiological plateau as well. In short, adults should be able to get stronger and faster, using smart training, than younger people.

Benefits

Adults will see all the associated benefits of resistance training mentioned so far, and in addition will be setting the groundwork for aging gracefully and preventing dependence on outside care. Adults who exercise during their young adult years are more likely to continue exercising into middle- and old-age, which means they see less muscle loss and bone deterioration as they get older. This improves quality of life immensely and may even extend their lifespan by many years.

Risks

As with kids and teens, risk of injury is always present, so train smart. A good mitigating factor is that most exercise equipment is designed for adults in this age range, so it becomes less likely that equipment will cause injury. Ensure that every athlete is trained on how to effectively use the equipment, and that risk is greatly reduced.

It is my opinion that over-training becomes a more common issue in young adults than in kids or older adults. Based on experience, this is the age group that is more likely to simply push too hard, because they have the added expectation of being able to recover quickly. I like to call this “Superman Syndrome” because we all think we’re immortal in our 20’s! Be careful to only push as far as you can recover from within 36-48 hours. Any harder and you still run the risk of doing serious damage, sometimes resulting in surgical intervention.

Early/Late Middle-age or Older (36+ years)

From mid-30’s until mid-60’s the body begins going through a significant decline in bone mass, muscle capacity, cardiovascular endurance, and alacrity (i.e. muscle speed). This loss tends to be worse in women versus men, which is doubly troubling because women tend to have less bone and muscle mass to begin with. The good news it, resistance training is here to help!

Benefits

First, some common diseases associated with getting older see positive impact from strength training. These include, but are not limited to:

  • arthritis
  • diabetes
  • osteoporosis
  • obesity
  • back pain
  • depression

Next, common issues associated with getting older are loss of balance/coordination and loss of bone mass. Strength training helps keep the neuromuscular connections between brain and muscle healthy from frequent usage, which means your body better knows where it is in space, and thus how to best move when you want to. Since these same movements cause the muscle to pull on your bones, your bones react by thickening to adapt to stress. This is good, because you can lose 1-2% of your bone mass per year just from aging (especially pronounced in post-menopausal women).

Third, weight gain and proper weight management becomes harder to control as you age. This is partially due to a reduced metabolic capacity and partially due to reduced hormone function (such as the insulin response from eating sugar). Exercise in older populations has been shown to increase resting metabolism by 15% on average, which helps use those calories from food. Exercise also helps your hormones get from “outta whack” to working as expected, with studies showing that in as little as 16 weeks of training, diabetic patients saw the same improvement in sugar metabolism as those who didn’t train, but took diabetes medication.

If you really need more, here’s some more:

  • Better sleep
  • Happier state of mind
  • Stronger heart
  • Reduced health care costs

And the one that is my personal reason for exercising from now until the day they put me in the ground:

  • Personal Independence

Risks

Injury is the biggest risk for the older population, and ramp-up from not training to training regularly at high capacity should be slow and methodical. Aim for 2 training sessions per week for 2-4 months, at 30-45 minutes per session. From there, add another day during the week for another 1-3 months, followed by longer sessions until you get to 3-4 workouts per week at about 60 minutes of activity. Start with lower weights, practicing unweighted for the first several workouts with a new movements, to help the body get back into the rhythm of exercising. Otherwise, progress as you would at any age, increasing weight, distance, etc. as your abilities improve.

References

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Growing Stronger – Strength Training for Older Adults”. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/growingstronger/why/
  • Loyd RS, Faigenbaum AD, Stone MH, et al. Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. Br J Sports Med 2014;48:498-505. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092952
  • Ribstein Center for Research and Sport Medicine Sciences, Wingate Institute, Netanya, Israel. “The effectiveness of resistance training in children. A meta-analysis”.
  • Weight training for Specific Populations: Older Adults. http://www.exrx.net/WeightTraining/Weightlifting/Masters.html