Posted on 18 December 2023
Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.
The problem: As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass and strength, which can affect our ability to perform daily activities and lower our quality of life. This process, known as sarcopenia, is associated with increased risk of falls, fractures, disability, and mortality. Studies show that physical exercise, especially resistance training, is effective for preventing sarcopenia even in old age. However, the prevailing view is that one’s ability to gain muscle strength from resistance training is substantially reduced with age, especially beyond age 80.
The discovery: A recent study found that resistance exercise training can induce substantial muscle growth and strength gains in both 65–75 years and 85+ years old adults. 29 healthy older adults completed a 12-week supervised whole-body resistance exercise training program, consisting of three sessions per week. This was a relatively intense and high volume exercise routine given the age of the participants. The researchers measured muscle mass, strength, and physical performance before, during, and after the intervention.
Somewhat surprisingly, compliance with the exercise program was high, and there were no adverse events – even the oldest participants were able to complete the exercise program and did not suffer any injuries.
Unsurprisingly given the existing evidence, both age groups benefited significantly from the exercise program. On average, their quadriceps muscle size increased by about 10%, their leg extension strength by about 40%, and their physical performance by about 10%. The more surprising finding was that for most measurements, there was no significant difference between the 65-75 year-olds and the 85+ year-olds in terms of benefits. The 85+ year-olds started with less muscle strength, but gained just as much strength during the study as the younger participants. This is in stark contrast to previous studies, which have suggested that the ability of older adults to gain muscle strength declines progressively into old age.
The implications: This study provides evidence that resistance training is an effective and safe strategy to improve muscle strength in even the oldest adults. This is a big deal considering muscle strength is strongly correlated with increased lifespan. But what could explain the apparent disagreement between this and previous studies?
One is the nature of the participants, who were healthy for their age in the present study. Previous studies have included people in care homes, who may already have suffered too much physical decline to achieve the full benefits of an exercise program. The other is the high intensity and volume of the exercise routine used. It is often assumed that older people should not be partaking in high levels of exercise due to risk of injury. However, this study suggests that even 85+ year-old people may be safely capable of supervised high intensity exercise, at least when they aren’t already suffering from health problems that impair their ability to do so.
As always, more research is needed to confirm these results. It is also important to further study exactly who benefits from resistance training and who doesn’t.
Muscle Mass and Strength Gains Following Resistance Exercise Training in Older Adults 65–75 Years and Older Adults Above 85 Years https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2023-0087
Title image by Victor Freitas, Upslash