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Benefits of Strength Training for Older Adults

This is a guest post from Melinda Penna who's customer of the store with an awesome Instagram page. Thanks Melinda!


My dad is a bit cross with me at the moment…and not for the usual reasons that you might assume a parent would be concerned about the behaviour of their wayward child.

 Oh no. He is thoroughly miffed because I broke the cardinal rule of all self-respecting Italians when it comes to food and fitness: I stopped eating pasta and got fit.

You see, my dad is 78 this year, and in the time that I have known him (more on that later) he has purchased no less than 6 gym memberships. He had actually never set foot in a gym until last year after his cardiologist gently broke the news to him that it might be a good idea. In fact, the running joke in our family has always been that if Italians wanted a green lawn, we’d paint the concrete; and if we wanted to get fit, we’d buy a gym membership!

And you may be sitting there chuckling to yourself, agreeing quietly and hoping nobody notices, or else rolling your eyes and sighing about the similarly athletic tendencies of a dear loved one…but the slightly more serious reality is that my dad has adult on-set diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, is (sorry, Dad) “slightly” husky in stature, and early last year he suffered his first TIA, or so-called mild stroke.

To top it off - bless him - his wonderful genes, for which I am generally speaking extremely grateful, mean that last year I was also diagnosed with insulin resistance and elevated cholesterol. I come from a very giving family, clearly, because from my mother I also got polycystic ovaries, hormone imbalances to rival a rollercoaster, and migraines…cool, huh?!

Now I love my family, don’t get me wrong, but this struck me as somewhat in the order of “not-what-I-put-on-my-Christmas-List-on-the-fridge” so to speak.

Which brings me to how long I have known my father….

You see, I am 48: that wonderful era of life where you start to consider making sure that the next 48 years actually happen.

So I went to my doctor with my long list of complaints about this rubbish business of getting older:

I’m tired  *  my brain won’t work like it used to  *  my muscles hurt and I haven’t done anything  *  I’d rather go shopping than have sex..ever again (actually, at the time I wasn’t complaining about that one)  *  I feel faint in the afternoons  *  I can’t stop the cravings I get in the evening no matter how much I eat during the day  *  and what is with this sweating business and not being able to sleep properly????

As you will no doubt expect, the doctor politely mentioned words like “early on-set menopause” and “diabetes”. There was the usual “high cholesterol” and a few new ones such as “hypoglycemic shock” and “insulin resistance”. After that fast round lasting all of about 5 minutes, out came the prescription pad.

My point here is not to suggest that there isn’t a necessary role for some medications for some people.

It is to say: I’m 48 – not 88. I should be fit and healthy. Unfortunately, as soon as I had that thought, a small voice in my head piped up and said “ah, but you’re not exactly fit and healthy, are you? What about all those chippies? And when was the last time you walked further than the bus stop?” at which point I went directly to my favourite café and had a nice latte with full cream milk!

Inevitably, however, the latte ran out and the little voice seemed to have a point. What ensued was a lot of self-reflection coupled with many late nights of research, TED talks, podcasts, and subscriptions to academic databases. All of this activity was fueled by the certainty that was making good friends with my sense of indignation: I’m 48!!

For those of you who are not yet 48, I probably need to point out that there was a very bold and capitalised ONLY in between those two words. If you don’t believe me, ask your mother.

And sure enough, the research and evidence-based practice was there to support my theory. Strength training in older adults, coupled with wholefood nutrition, can counteract many adult-onset diseases that our modern society now takes for granted.

Dr Brendan Egan, PhD University College of Dublin, is a leading researcher on sarcopenia and its effects on older adults. Sarcopenia is age-related muscle wasting and associated loss of muscular strength. It is now recognised as a serious factor in disease-related malnutrition, frailty syndromes, loss of independence, and ill-health in aging. It is also strongly linked with many of the serious conditions prevalent in older people:

  • Immobilisation and Bed-Rest
  • Spinal Cord Injury
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – COPD
  • Chronic Heart Failure
  • Renal Failure
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Diabetes

In case you, like me, are exclaiming with delight at these statistics and congratulating yourself that you too are ONLY 48 (or for the junior readership, more likely, NOT EVEN 48), this is where we start having to face up to some also-not-on-my-Christmas-List facts:

  • Loss of strength in our muscles impacts balance.
  • Loss of muscle strength therefore increases the likelihood of falls.
  • US data puts the rate of sarcopenia in over 65’s at 20% of the population. That increases to more than 50% in people aged over 85 years.

But wait, there’s more….

After the age of 30, we lose between 3-8% muscle mass per decade through natural deterioration.

Studies were done on healthy college-aged students doing the recommended 10,000 steps of regular activity per day. Their activity was reduced to 2,000 steps per day by forcing them to take elevators instead of stairs and pushing them around in wheelchairs.

They lost, on average, 5% muscle mass in 14 days! And remember, these guys are of an age where collagen is still in their vocabulary.

Similar studies have shown that a 70-year old who is bed-ridden for 10 days loses approximately 10% muscle mass…in 10 days.

Suddenly “I’m not EVEN 48” isn’t sounding so bullet-proof anymore.

The reality is that muscle burns/uses approximately 80-90% of our energy intake. When we under use our muscles due to injury or inactivity, that energy intake becomes excess and gets stored in the body…and it increases our risk of a wide range of disorders and illnesses.

Modern living isn’t exactly helping us out here either. Automation means we spend long periods of time sitting. Our exercise is often in concentrated bursts – the so-called recommended half an hour of walking 5 days per week, when followed by 8 hours of sitting at work, is actually not delivering the benefits we had hoped.

James Levine, PhD, professor at the Mayo Clinic, principal investigator for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and advisor to the US government on obesity solutions for over 3 decades, states that sitting is one of the worst things we can do. It increases the risk of blood sugar dysregulation, obesity, neurological issues, decreased productivity, and general well-being.

Dr Egan’s research is widely corroborated and comes with a really important message:

Walking is not enough.

It isn’t enough alone to make muscles stronger or increase muscle mass. Muscles need resistance. In fact, cardio-only athletes have been shown to be more pre-disposed to losing muscle mass than strength training athletes.

Now I know you might be thinking: but I don’t want to be a bodybuilder/have huge muscles/look like Arnie…ok, well some of you will be wanting exactly that, and “go you” for having goals that are adding value to your longevity and health overall.

But doing strength training doesn’t mean you are going to suddenly bulge out in Mr Universe biceps. Just go down to any gym and ask the poor athletes who go through seriously committed routines of nutrition and training and still have to wait…and wait…and keep at it, week after week, month after month, etc.

Especially for women, the reality is that strength training will not make us look like beefy blokes. We don’t have the same bio-chemistry for starters.

What it will do, however, is give you an awesome toned butt, make you look especially hot in that lovely dress you just bought, and ensure that you never cover your gorgeous upper arms again.

It will also keep you alive longer…healthier. It will mean you can run after your grandchildren…or the gardener if you prefer. And it will save you an absolute fortune in medical bills.

So…what did I eventually get out of all this research, you might ask? Well, I decided to run the experiment on myself. In October last year I began a regular program of weights training and wholefood nutrition that included learning what a macro was…and then remembering to count them. The good news was that my brain stopped feeling fuzzy so the memory has improved which kind of helped!

Five months on, I have lost 4kg. My waist has reduced by about 6cm, and I can even do a chin-up. Actually, I can do about 10 of them. I’ve never done a chin up in my life before, just so you know.

Transformation picture


More importantly though, I went back to the doctor and had the blood tests re-run. My blood sugar is even, my hormones are normal (there really is a first time for everything, apparently!), I get up daily at 6.30 and have the energy to want to go to the gym 5 days a week plus yoga 3-5 days, and half an hour of cardio each morning. Don’t forget, I’m part Italian, so sleeping is something I could do for the Olympics. For my body, having the energy to get up at 6.30am is a huge deal.

And I am off all my medication.

Please note that this was done under medical supervision and you should in no way take this article as medical advice. You should always consult your practitioners and undertake changes to your routine based on appropriate advice and support.

In the end, it has been a really eye-opening experience and a huge learning exercise (so to speak).

Why then, you might wonder, is my dad still cross with me???

Well he says it’s because he now has no excuse but to go to the gym and actually use the equipment. Numerous rude words were uttered, I assure you!

In case you would like further information, you may like to check out some of the following resources:

TED Talk

Muscle matters: Dr Brendan Egan at TEDxUCD


Podcasts – Sigma Nutrition Radio - :

These are really interesting and well worth checking out.

SNR #87: Dr. Brendan Egan – Anabolic Resistance, Sarcopenia & The Importance of Muscle

SNR #95: Dr. James Levine – Physiological & Psychological Effects of Chronic Sitting & Low NEAT

SNR #98: Lee Hamilton, PhD – Effect of Omega 3 on Muscle Mass & Metabolic Function


Peer-Reviewed Articles:

Egan, B. & Zierath, J., 2013. Exercise metabolism and the molecular regulation of skeletal muscle adaptation. Sourced from

Breen, L. & Phillips, S., 2011. Skeletal muscle protein metabolism in the elderly: interventions to counteract the ‘anabolic resistance’ of ageing. Sourced from

Seguin, R. & Nelson, M., 2003. The benefits of strength training for older adults. Sourced from:


Other Interesting Articles:

13 Benefits of Strength Training for People Older Than 50


An Outstanding Resource:

Alan Aragon’s Review – this is one of the most comprehensive reviews of research in nutrition and fitness. It has been going for over 10 years and delivers a monthly synopsis of all the current research in the field with articles and updates.

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  • Hahaha… Sorry Dad!

    Melinda Penna on

  • Thanks Melinda
    You should know I’m ONLY 76!

    David Penna on

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