Elderly people who don’t start exercising until their 70s or 80s will still find it is beneficial, new research has found. Scientists at the University of Birmingham discovered that even those who had never participated in structured exercise before saw improvements from sessions at the gym in old age.
Their ability to build muscle was also on a par with athletes the same age who had trained all their lives. This, the researchers said, was evidence that it’s never too late to get fit and even small steps, like walking up the stairs or doing gardening could improve fitness.
Two groups of elderly men were analysed for their muscle-building ability in the study. The master athletes had reached the peak of fitness and were still competing at the top level of their respective sports right into their 70s and 80s. They were compared to healthy individuals who’d never had definable exercise regimes.
All of the participants were given a ‘heavy’ water drink to act as an isotope tracer before doing a single exercise session. Activities included weight training on an exercise machine designed to help build muscle. Samples from each individual’s muscles were taken within 48 hours before and after the sessions to see how they responded.
The isotope tracer allowed scientists to see how proteins were starting to develop within the muscle. They had hypothesised that the master athletes would have a better ability to build muscle because of their prolonged periods of fitness, but in reality, both groups were found to have the same capacity to develop muscles by exercising.
Dr Leigh Breen, lead researcher, said: “Our study clearly shows that it doesn't matter if you haven't been a regular exerciser throughout your life, you can still derive benefit from exercise whenever you start.
“Obviously a long-term commitment to good health and exercise is the best approach to achieve whole-body health, but even starting later on in life will help delay age-related frailty and muscle weakness. Current public health advice on strength training for older people is often quite vague.
“What's needed is more specific guidance on how individuals can improve their muscle strength, even outside of a gym setting through activities undertaken in their homes – activities such as gardening, walking up and down stairs, or lifting up a shopping bag can all help if undertaken as part of a regular exercise regime.”
If you have an elderly loved one who could benefit from doing a little bit more exercise it’s worth encouraging them and forming a plan on how to put it into action. Care staff will be able to help with this and keep an eye on them so they don’t injure themselves.
As well as developing muscle, regular exercise can help older people to stay mobile for longer and aid in maintaining their independence. It can also be a good way to improve their state of mind, releasing dopamine into the brain and providing a feeling of achievement.