Strength training for over 50s matters – here’s how to make it work for you 

Dr Jackson Fyfe notes that surprisingly small ‘doses’ of exercise can have substantial benefits on improving aspects of muscle mass, strength, and power in older adults.

Resistance training (or muscle strengthening exercise) involves performing movements against an external resistance, ranging from bodyweight alone to heavier loads in the form of machines or free weights. 

Compared to other forms of exercise, such as aerobic exercises like walking or cycling, resistance training has proven to be more effective at improving muscle mass, strength and power, while also having a positive effect on bone mass. 

Despite these benefits, participation in resistance training remains low among older adults, with as few as 6 per cent of Australian adults aged 50 years and over reported to meet current muscle strengthening exercise guidelines. 

So, why is resistance training important for older adults? 

Evidence shows that strength, power, muscle and bone mass decline with age which can increase the risk of various negative health outcomes, such as loss of functional ability and independence, and chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and hypertension. 

But older people can be hesitant to try resistance training because of time constraints, perceived difficulty, and limited access to facilities and equipment. 

Dr Jackson Fyfe, a researcher at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) has noted that surprisingly small ‘doses’ of exercise can have substantial benefits on improving aspects of muscle mass, strength, and power. 

Such ‘minimal-dose’ approaches to exercise align with findings that even five minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) can lower the risk of mortality. In addition, recent changes to the physical activity guidelines   suggest that any physical activity is better than none, and that the greatest benefits of physical activity occur when an individual shifts from inactive to performing some form of movement. 

In a recent study, Dr Fyfe found it was feasible for older adults aged 65-79 to undertake brief home-based resistance exercise (5 min per session) with no equipment between one and three times per day. The participants also found the program enjoyable and most suggested they would continue performing similar exercise at home, indicating this form of exercise may be a viable strategy to engage older adults in resistance training. 

“Our team is continuing to investigate whether pragmatic ‘minimal-dose’ approaches to resistance training are feasible and enjoyable, and whether this form of exercise is effective for improving older adults’ physical function,” Dr Fyfe said. 

How can you make the most out of resistance training? Here are four tips to improve your muscle and strength for longer: 

  • Undertake some form of resistance exercise at least twice per week 

Consistency is key when trying to achieve goals. Remember that any training is more worthwhile than no training. Even the most sub-optimal workout done consistently over time is likely to be vastly more effective than ‘better’ workouts performed less often. 

  • Keep it simple and brief 

Resistance training doesn’t need to be fancy to be effective. In fact, most of us can gain considerable benefits from small amounts of simple exercise performed consistently. Going too complex before nailing the basics can get in the way of consistent workouts and deter you from your goals. 

  • Aim for consistency before intensity 

Too often we prioritise the intensity of our workouts, thinking this will be more effective. High intensity workouts come at the cost of increased fatigue, possible loss of correct form and decreased enjoyment or pleasure in the workout. Remember it’s harder to be consistent when you’re fatigued, making it less likely that you’ll turn up for the next session. 

  • Tailor your routine towards what you enjoy 

Long-term exercise behaviour is influenced by whether we experience enjoyment from our workout. Try to shift your focus away from intensity and complexity and concentrate on exercising in a way that you find enjoyable and likely want to try again. 

Dr Fyfe advised that anyone embarking on a resistance training program for the first time should seek professional advice from a GP or Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP).