Our bodies are designed to move. Muscles, even small and weedy ones, help us do that. As we age our bodies produce less of the human growth hormones (HGH) that feed and nurture our muscles. It is part of the ageing process.
Muscles are important, but they are also a bit of a luxury in metabolic terms because they cost a lot of energy to maintain.
That’s why the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn.
Evolution within our system says that if we no longer need to use the muscles (because we are no longer going out to hunt wooly mammoths) then we can probably do with less. Losing muscle mass due to ageing is called Sarcopenia, and the average human will lose as much as 30% of their muscle structure before they hit 70.
It doesn’t need to be that way, and in fact both women and men- but especially post-menopausal women- need to start a muscle building process as soon as they can in order to protect themselves against things like osteoporosis and brittle bone disease. Believe it or not, the more muscles you have, the less likely you are to break bones.
We move with muscles and ligaments that protect our skeletons. The structure of our body is designed for all of these parts of the puzzle to work together. You are less likely to fall down and break something if your muscles are strong and your ligaments are healthy.
When we use and challenge our muscles, we produce more HGH, and thus, we can actually slow the ageing process. It sounds so simple, and it is, but for a lot of people, the idea of building muscle as we get older seems a bit counter intuitive. Even the idea of Human Growth Hormones makes us think of overgrown bull necked gym junkies with tiny testicles and very bad fake tans.
The good news is that even a small amount of load bearing makes a huge difference.
Doctors and Sports scientists have discovered that very slow strength training works wonders for people wanting to build up muscles function, if not bulk.
When we talk about slow strength training, we mean doing repetitions of weight lifts in actual slow motion. This is not about standing in front of a mirror and frantically jerking 100 kg of bar weights above your head like a Siberian sheep herder, its’ about using small movements very slowly to awaken the structures within your muscle cells, in order for them to wear and repair.
It is this wear and repair that builds more muscle and encourages cell regeneration and strength. For example. Sitting on a chair or bench at home or in the gym with hand weights ( up to 5kg, but you can start with 1kg) and lifting them above your head at a slow count of 10, then bringing them to your ears at the same pace 5 times will do more for your back, shoulder and arm muscles than pounding machine assisted weights like a mad man.
Equally, you can use something like a filled water bottle in your hands when you are just starting out.
Slow lunges with hand held weights also pack a punch when it comes to muscle usage, and, remember, the slower you count, the better the result will be. Slowly squat down into the lunge position holding the weights in your hand. If you can, lift the weights to the side with your arms out stretched, or if you feel comfortable, lift them above your head. A slow count of ten for each movement is ideal. Aim for 5 lunges in total, build to 10 and then 20.
When you start out, start small. You probably won’t enter the Olympics as a weightlifter this round, so why do you need to hurry?
Try 5 repetitions at first and if that’s good, try 6. If one day 5 is too many, relax and do 4. If you do 4 on that day…..try for one more. You can do it. Your worst day in the gym is the best day you are having for your body. That tiredness is going to make it work harder to repair and reset, and that is exactly what you want it to do. Tired and stressed muscles use energy to build up in order to protect themselves. Congratulations, you are being very tricky.
If you want to hit the gym and use the weight machines, do. There is absolutely no reason why people in their middle age and beyond shouldn’t aim for optimal health. Recent studies show that weightlifting in the over 50’s also protects us from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. The very repairing process that our muscles are forced to contend with when we stress them works towards neuron survival in the brain.
Aerobic exercise is important for our cardio-vascular health…..and at the end of the day you know that your heart is a muscle. Load bearing exercise is vital for reversing the ravages of ageing.
Sitting still is the very opposite of what we are designed to do, but the good news is that we don’t have to be fast in order to live well, we just have to be strong. When you do brave it out and go to a gym filled with overly buff 20 somethings puffing and panting away, take a minute to watch what they are doing.
Is there something you’d like to try but you don’t know how? Don’t be shy. Ask someone who works at the gym to show you how to use the machines, or which weights to use for each muscle group. That’s their passion, so they will be happy to help, and get in there and become part of the ‘body building set’. Whatever that really means.
Even if you stay at home and start weightlifting in the privacy of your bedroom, you can’t go wrong. Remember, the goal is to be strong, not thin. Being very thin is no healthier than being very fat, but having well-toned, high functioning muscles is the key to well-being at every age.


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