How are your muscles? If yours are anything like mine, they could do with a little work. Yesterday England’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) weighed in on the state of the nation’s musculature, recommending strengthening exercises twice a week to help us age well. The guidelines advise that we build strength and improve balance to help stave off the natural decline in muscle mass and bone density that we feel around the age of 50.
The new advice is based on recent research like the Journal of Preventative Medicine study we quoted in our book, which found that older adults who did strength training at least twice a week had 46% lower odds of death from all causes, 41% lower risk of cardiac death and 19% lower risk of dying from cancer than those who did no strength training. And, as women over 50, Annabel and I are very conscious of our declining bone density (around 1% a year from the age of 40) and the need to stay strong to reduce our risk of frailty and osteoporosis.
We’ve talked before about how we’ve worked strength training into our days by stealth: keeping hand weights by the kettle for a few biceps curls while waiting for it to boil, practising squats and lunges as we wait for a bus (and not caring if we look silly) and using TV viewing time to do a few floor exercises. But this new advice has prompted me to up my weight-training game. After reading the CMO report yesterday, I marched off to my local gym and requested a programme using the fixed and free weights.
Now I’ve got a regime that starts with a core warm up then progresses through bench presses (eek!), seated rows, the Smith machine (me neither), leg presses, assisted dips, the cable machines and bicep curls. 8-12 reps each time in sets of three. If I can stick to this twice a week, I should have some nice muscles by Christmas. And I’ve decided not to be put off by the grunting, testosterone-fuelled musclemen in the weights room – I’m reclaiming the space for 50-something women!
This is a pretty big commitment to exercise but September is such a good time for new intentions as we return, hopefully a little rested and sun kissed after the summer, to a more structured routine. A fellow blogger wished me ‘happy new year’ this week and I knew exactly what she meant! And as Annabel wrote last week, summer’s demise is also a time of promise and possibility. So why not use it to make some changes to your exercise regime, or increase your daily movement, at least.
The new CMO advice is clear that we don’t have to commit to serious gym time to make a difference to our health. It states that any amount of physical activity is beneficial, overturning previous recommendations that physical activity needed to last at least 10 minutes to bring benefits. “We need more active travel, we need people to get off the bus or the tube a stop early. We need people to climb stairs instead of getting in a lift…We need to be more active.”, states Dame Sally Davies, the CMO. She adds that there is “no such thing as too little exercise” – hoping that the simple message will encourage people to get more active. Which means that our Age-Well advice of keeping weights by the kettle, and exercise ‘snacking’ is more relevant than ever.
The CMO advice also includes a specific recommendation for all over-65s: twice weekly activity to improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility such as dancing, bowls or activities like tai chi in order to help stave off injury and illness in old age. Dancing is one of the best exercises there is as it boosts cognition as well as being a great work out. I’ve never tried tai chi but when I lived in the middle of Toronto’s Chinatown I was inspired by the spry elders of the local community who practiced Tai Chi in the local park each day. I’ll get to it one day!
What are you doing to keep fit and build muscle? Maybe you’re lunging in the park like Annabel in the photo above? Let us know in the comments below, and please do share this so everyone you know is aware of the latest update in exercise recommendations.