Never Too Late: Building Muscle and Strength After 60

Retirees, take note and flex that bicep: 2017 can be the year you start building muscle again. Repeated research has shown that, through weight training, men and women in their 60s and beyond can grow muscles as big and strong as an average 40-year-old.

This is possible despite the age-related changes that begin around middle age, when metabolism slows, muscle mass shrinks, and hormonal and neurological responses decline.

“Yes, you can put on lean muscle mass as you age,” said personal trainer Jennifer Oestreich, supervisor of the Wellness Center at Mariners Hospital, which offers fitness memberships, group classes, personal training and other wellness activities to the Upper Keys community.

But patience and perseverance are part of the equation, she added. “The timing is usually longer to regain and build strength because everything else is more sluggish. You have to work a little bit harder and a little bit longer.”

The UAB Center for Exercise Medicine at the University of Alabama has carried out many studies showing that people in their 60s and 70s, who were supervised in a weight-training program, were able to build muscle and strength.

Rebuilding Muscle Fiber

Older people who do resistance training are building muscle in almost the same way younger people do. The resistance during weight training creates “micro-tears” — or tiny tears — in the fibers of the muscle. Micro-tears comprise a vital part of muscle building.

“During the recovery process, the body starts to heal the micro-tears in the muscle fiber and uses the protein we eat to aid in the repair and growth of the muscle,” Ms. Oestreich said.

Younger people can create new muscle during this process, but seniors who have lost muscle mass can only strengthen their remaining muscle fibers, according to research at the UAB Center. But the outcome is the same: larger and stronger muscles.

The key for seniors, research has found, is a consistent and progressive approach. Ms. Oestreich, who earned a master’s degree in human performance and health promotion at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., offers some tips for seniors to get started on a muscle-building exercise routine:

  • If you can afford it, get professional help, such as a few sessions with a personal trainer. “This is the safest way to get started.” Start off doing eight to 12 repetitions at a weight that exhausts the muscles by the final few repetitions. Gradually work up to doing two to four sets of each exercise, two to three times a week. “Individuals who have joint issues, such as arthritis, may need modifications,” such as doing more or fewer repetitions at a lower weight. If you don’t have a trainer, or aren’t familiar with weight-resistance workouts, ask for some initial guidance at your gym.
  • Always listen to your body. “If something hurts or doesn’t feel right, that’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. That whole notion of no pain, no gain is false.”
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water before and after exercising. This is especially important for seniors, said Ms. Oestreich, who has found her older clients tend to drink less water in an effort to avoid multiple trips to the bathroom.
  • Eat well. “You cannot out-exercise a poor diet. Eating protein before and after a work-out will lead to a better outcome for muscle growth and development.” While most people need about .8 grams of protein per kilo of body weight every day, those who have experienced a loss of muscle mass (called sarcopenia) may need as much as 1.2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight. Convert your body weight from pounds to kilos here. (For example, a person weighing 165 pounds, or 75 kilos, needs at least 60 grams of protein per day, or up to 90 grams.)
  • Wear proper clothing. “Footwear is especially important — sturdy sneakers with a good grip and laces that tie.” Choose loose-fitting, breathable shirts and shorts or pants.
  • Work out with others. “Group exercise is a fun way to get your workout done in a safe environment and meet likeminded people.” It provides social activity for seniors at a time in life when isolation can become a problem. “Interacting with others is a really good thing to do for the human spirit.”

For information on Baptist Health fitness classes, click here.

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