Can a woman in her 50's build muscle? Hell yes.
Well sisters, I’m once again feeling compelled to write about the important topic of strength-training. In my last post on this subject, I introduced you to the idea of sarcopenia and how strength-training can help to reverse the effects. If you didn’t read the previous post, I have included this brief synopsis:
A normal (but avoidable) part of aging is a process called sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the progression of our muscles becoming smaller over time. The longer you live, the smaller the circumference of your muscles become, if you do nothing to reverse the process.
Hormonal changes, individual protein requirements, and inactive lifestyles can also make some women much more susceptible to the changes that occur as a result of sarcopenia. Because of muscle loss, women tend to lose strength in their hips and legs, and with reduced strength in these areas comes slow and insidious changes in mobility and balance, which can eventually pose a risk for falls.
Muscle loss occurs over the lifespan (typically starting in our 30s) but becomes more rapid after menopause. Age-related changes mean we lose muscle strength and size, so working on getting stronger overall is key. This won’t occur just by walking or doing other aerobic exercise.
It’s also important to highlight the impact of strength-training on both bone health and posture. We all know older women who have developed rounded posture (also known as hyper-kyphosis or Dowager’s hump). The process of developing a rounded upper back doesn’t happen overnight, and it occurs for a combination of reasons.
One of the most significant culprits for a rounded upper spine is osteoporosis. We can help prevent osteoporosis by eating a nutritious diet (especially including enough calcium and Vitamin D and having an adequate protein intake), quitting smoking, and participating in regular physical activity.
What’s the role of posture?
Along with good prevention efforts, we can also reduce undue load on our spine by working on our posture. Improving posture can help prevent the progression of a rounded upper frame. Poor posture places a stress on our vertebrae and weaken the supporting muscles. In people with poor bone health, problematic posture can also create a greater risk of fractures and falls later in life.
Working on your posture now can also maintain (or possibly improve) your spine health going forward. Improving posture is also the first place to start if you are thinking of implementing a strength-training plan. Good form is vital for the best results in any program.
Here are five quick cues to help you improve your posture:
1. Start by evening up the weight between your feet. All that sitting we do can cause us to shift weight on to one side when we stand. Visualize where your weight is over your feet and try to even out the distribution.
2. Think about drawing your tummy in. A good cue here is to think of where your tummy would go if you were putting on a tight pair of pants. Engaging your pelvic floor can also help.
3. Look forward to a visual target at eye-height (any type of landmark that you can come back to). A visual target tends to help us get our eyes up (which also helps with balance). Think also about slightly tucking your chin in.
4. Raise your breastbone towards the sky. If this is hard to visualize, think about taking a deep breath in and drawing the air towards the back of your lungs. You can also think about wearing a necklace that you are showing to a friend. Lift your chest to show them all the wonderful details of the necklace .
5. Think of an invisible string dropping through the centre of your body. This means the string would drop in a straight line through your ear, shoulder, hip, and foot.
Developing a plan
Once you have your posture practice in place, you are ready to move on to developing a plan. The first thing to know is that strength-training should be done as part of your overall physical activity program. When I say program, what I really mean is something that is integrated into your life. I am a much bigger fan of activity that takes place throughout the day and can be woven into your schedule, rather than one that requires you to make a specific time to exercise.
The best place to start is with a framework. Strength-training combines nicely with regular aerobic activity and daily movement. Here in Canada, our national guidelines include 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more. These are activities like walking, jogging, swimming, bike riding, or hiking.
What’s the intensity?
You can think of the effort for activity on a 10-point scale. At an exertion of about 6-8 you are likely in the moderate to vigorous category. You could also conceptualize this as the effort it would take to carry on a conversation while on a walk; if you are working hard enough that you can speak but you feel a little breathless and the conversation is an effort, you’re also in moderate to vigorous territory. Important note: those with known osteoporosis would want to remain in the moderate effort zone (5-7).
Remember, just 10 minutes of walking, 3 times a day for five days of the week can make a big difference to your health. Of course, more is better. Reminder: if you are not regularly physically active or if you have any health concerns, please check with your doctor before starting a program.
Okay, now you’re regularly walking with a fairly good clip. What’s next? You’re ready to add in “muscle and bone strengthening activities” twice a week. Your activities should be moves that include all the major muscle groups; your plan should consist of those that target the legs, back, chest, shoulders, arms, and abdominals.
Think about the best prescription for you. To get the most benefit, work up to exercising each major muscle group 2 to 3 days per week but limit increases to 5-10% per week. Try adding your exercises with other activities throughout the day – for example, you could do some squats while brushing your teeth, or could do some calf raises to take a break from sitting throughout the day. Just make sure that you are focusing on good posture and alignment throughout each movement to protect your spine. Even better, get some professional training to help with designing a comprehensive program.
You don’t need to join a gym to get the benefits. Strength training can be done with resistance bands or even simply with your own body weight. Again, I’m not a fan of expensive equipment or dedicated gym time to start (unless that’s your thing). It’s easier to stay committed to a program if you are doing it as part of your daily routine.
If you’ve never done a strength-training program before, we can help to get you started. I have added a free download, taken from our Six Steps to Better Aging program. The download includes a basic program with pictures, descriptions, and suggested home equipment.
If you want to learn more about strength-training, please send me an email for information on our new, Six Steps to Better Aging Program that has a much more detailed strength-training section along with personalized training plans.
Your sister in health,