Dec 06, 2023

Can older people build muscle and mobility through weight training?

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The World's Oldest Bodybuilder, 91-year-old Jim Arrington can attest to the benefits of weight and resistance training in old age. [Source: Daily Mail]

Historically, gym-goers have been of the assumption that after a certain age, building muscle mass and strength becomes virtually impossible. But that myth may be busted as a new study suggests people as old as 90 can successfully build muscle, strength and mobility with a suitable weight training program. 

The paper published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism indicates you are never too old to start pumping iron, having found people in their 80s and 90s who hadn’t weight trained before showed significant gains after starting a supervised program of lifting weights three times a week.

The idea of the study stemmed from outdated views on older people and exercise as well as limited historical scientific data that often did not encompass those over 75.

In the study, researchers analysed 29 older men and women from the ages of 65 to over 85 who lived independently, had no debilitating illnesses and had never regularly weight trained before. Three times a week, participants completed a supervised basic full-body resistance routine using gym machines for 12 weeks, using weights set to as much as 80% of their full strength.

After three months, those aged over 85 saw an average of 11% increased muscle mass and 46% increase in strength – a higher result than those aged 65–75 who saw an average increase of 10% more muscle and 38% more strength.

Luc van Loon, human biology Professor at Maastricht University and senior author of the new study dismissed theories that older people can’t experience positive results to resistance training.

“It is often assumed that the oldest old, or, say, people past the age of 80, are less likely to be able to gain muscle mass and strength,” he told The Washington Post

“Muscle tissue is constantly turning over as long as we live.”

One older person who can attest to the benefits of weight lifting and general gym-going is the World’s Oldest Bodybuilder, 91-year-old Jim Arrington.

Born premature and suffered from a variety of health conditions throughout his childhood, Mr Arrington decided to start hitting the gym as a teen to be strong like his favourite superheroes.

In a recent video by the Guinness World Records, Mr Arrington explained his keys to success and long-serving mobility was listening to his body and knowing when to change his training routine with age. He also swapped out the “old style” muscle-growing diet that is heavy on dairy and beef for one full of more anti-inflammatory foods.  

“What works for a person at one time in their life isn’t the same. And that’s the whole thing about bodybuilding: it’s adaptation,” Mr Arrington told Men’s Health

“I changed my diet entirely. I figured if I did that, I could continue training, and I could keep this thing up.”

Researchers who were a part of the recent study did flag some limitations. They suggested the oldest group of participants achieved greater gains in part because they had an extra decade of declining muscle size and strength compared to the younger lifters, thus starting from a lower baseline. 

Also, as participants were of good health and were assisted and supervised, they pointed out that this level of assistance may not be achievable for all people – particularly those with poorer health. 

If you are a person over 60 who is interested in starting weight training, it is important to talk to your doctor first to ensure it is safe for your health and mobility. Once you’ve got the all-clear, consider signing up with a physiotherapist or finding an age-appropriate gym program that can get you started. 

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