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Use It or Lose It, Part 2

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Photo by Sriyoga Ashram on Unsplash

Published in the Humboldt Independent on February 16, 2021

Last time, we talked about the gradual loss of muscle mass that is a natural part of the aging process, beginning as early as one’s thirties but accelerating as we get older. Sarcopenia, as this condition is called, can cause a loss of 3-5% of a person’s muscle mass each decade and can lead to numerous other health issues.

In this article, we will give you some ideas for how to reverse that loss through strength or “resistance” training. Many studies show that one is never too old to rebuild strength, and at least one study has shown that adults in their seventies were able to recover significant strength by doing body-weight resistance exercises only, working out for just 30 minutes, three times a week.

It’s important to note that your daily walk or other pure cardio workouts, while of great benefit to your cardiovascular system, does not help you recover pure muscle strength. Only resistance-based exercises can do that for you. It is also important to keep up at least a maintenance routine for the rest of your life, or sarcopenia will creep up on you causing you to lose your strength all over again.

Getting started

Bulk does not necessarily equate to strength, especially in the aging body.

If you are unfamiliar with strength training exercises and a gym membership or personal trainer is available to you, such a contact will provide a wide variety of approaches, including free weights or weight machines, and a personalized plan can be created. Let your trainer know what your goals are, how much time you want to spend, and what equipment you are comfortable with. Lots of trainers are available online during the pandemic, and some gyms are open.

You will work out with the trainer or at home, depending on your plan, and intermittent check-ins, measuring your strength abilities will track your progress. Tell your trainer that you want to recover strength in your major muscle groups but not necessarily build muscle mass. Bulk does not necessarily equate to strength, especially in the aging body.

At least one study showed that people who included brief intervals of cardio training within their resistance training sessions had the best overall strength gains, and that can be simple to incorporate into a gym setting by hopping up on a stationary bike or a treadmill for a couple of minutes between bouts of strength work.

If you have some gym or home-exercise experience, you will have no trouble finding books, websites, YouTube videos, etc., that will assist you in designing your own routine for home or gym use. You probably have some dumbbells lying around the house, or perhaps you can find some stretchy bands you had for physical therapy at one time.

If a gym membership or a personal trainer is not available to you, and you don’t have the experience or the comfort level to design your own routine, you can follow a routine of body-weight exercises at home and get excellent results as shown by the study mentioned above.

If you’d like some guidance, I have made a video showing a sample of bodyweight exercises appropriate for absolute beginners or re-starters and showing a few more advanced modifications to use as you progress. The video is considerably longer than the workout you would need to do on a regular basis but will give you a good variety of things to try while you decide what works best for you. Remember, the best workout is the one you will enjoy coming back to again and again. Details for accessing the video are given below.

The major muscle groups you will want to address are your core, your upper body, and your legs.

However you decide to do your strength training, the major muscle groups you will want to address are your core, your upper body, and your legs. When choosing exercises keep in mind that the body requires variety and novelty to progress, so if you do the same routine of crunches, push-ups, and squats over and over and over, you will hit a plateau and your strength gains will cease.

It is also important to vary the type of resistance you do. Slow moves with high resistance build more muscle for tasks involving short bouts of strength such as lifting one or two heavy boxes. Endurance training involves high repetition movement with lighter resistance for tasks such as stacking firewood over a longer period of time. Isometrics, or holding still while challenging a muscle, can help build strength in a specific range of motion, and also can help lower blood pressure, according to some studies.

Mix and Match

Mixing and matching heavy resistance, endurance work and isometrics within each muscle group would look like this:

For each major area:  (core, upper body, legs) 3-5 minutes heavy resistance training, 3-5 minutes endurance training, 1-2 minutes isometrics. It doesn’t matter what order you do them in, as long as you maintain an effort level that is challenging but not overwhelming and is something you enjoy (at least a little) so that you will do it again and again and again. Take a 30-60 second break between exercises to allow the muscle tissue some recovery and reload time.

Exercise for at least 8-10 minutes for each area of emphasis (hey, if you find out you love this stuff, your workouts can be up to an hour in total length!), working in a way that leaves you feeling a bit tired but not depleted. Be well hydrated before you begin and drink light sips of water throughout the workout. Eat a healthy snack or meal with a good portion of lean protein when you are finished, as especially for the older exerciser, adequate protein intake is an important factor in maximizing your results.

Strength training builds confidence and coordination, and has the added benefit of strengthening your bones. The human body is adaptable and resilient throughout your lifespan. While aging takes its gradual toll, the musculoskeletal system will always respond to the challenges we give it by becoming stronger. If you have any health issues, please check with your primary care provider before beginning any exercise program.

Please email me at for a link to the free video. If you need a hard copy, I can put it on a flash drive if you provide me with one.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.