It’s that time of year … for looking forward to a new year and, perhaps, a new becoming. Most of us have something we want to change, amend or improve (health-wise), particularly as we’re not getting any younger.
I like to start with a long-range vision and a simple outcome. In fact my resolution each year is broadly the same: I want to be able to lift a 15 kilo suitcase or ruck sack onto the luggage rack of a train, and I want to be able to walk 20 miles a day, ideally carrying my rucksack all by myself. If I can do this, I’ll have the strength, stamina, flexibility and mobility to do anything else that comes my way. Well, in theory…
But I’ll be honest. My muscles are letting me down. As we get older, our muscles need to work harder merely to stay in the same condition. Although I’m now using weights I could never have lifted in my youth, the effects are harder and harder to maintain. Sometimes I feel as if I’m racing against my own body. Which means I really should do longer or more frequent sessions, with endlessly heavier weights.
Confession: I find strength training the most boring thing in the world. So I treat it like cleaning my teeth – non-negotiable. Paragraphs like this from a study published in the brilliant Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, keep me (mostly and reluctantly) motivated:
‘Resistance exercise is the most potent non-medical treatment for combatting skeletal muscle deterioration and improving health-related quality of life.’
Luckily, a spate of new studies suggests that strength training needn’t be as time-consuming as we once thought. It’s usually recommended that we do 2–3 resistance training sessions per week using relatively heavy loads but more recent evidence suggests that low-load resistance training (i.e. using lighter weights) is just as good so long as we take it to (I quote) ‘exhaustion’.
Exhaustion? But who wants to be any more exhausted than we already are? Just before Christmas, Susan wrote about a fascinating study based on two hour-long sessions a week. For those who like pumping iron or have plenty of time on their hands, that’s fine. For me, the thought of sitting on weight machines for two hours a week is… well, barely imaginable.
But is two hours a week on machines really necessary?
A new study suggests that being deficient in Vitamin D could accelerate loss of strength, so my first tip is to check your Vitamin D levels. Make sure you’re taking a daily D3 supplement of at least 1000 iu (in which case your levels should be fine). Or ask your GP for a Vitamin D blood test if you’re worried.
We also know from recent studies that strength training is enhanced if we’re eating sufficient protein. According to the research team at www.examine.com, when it comes to preserving strength ‘a combined resistance training and high-protein diet intervention seems to be more effective than either intervention alone.’ So once you’ve checked your vitamin D levels, check your protein intake. Susan covered the subject of protein here, along with some our fave protein-dense recipes. As she pointed out, we may need considerably more than we’re getting. A trial of elderly men found that those consuming double the recommended amount of protein had less muscle loss than those ingesting the recommended 0.8 grams per kilogram of weight. So that’s my second tip: eat more protein.
Now, what about the actual weight training? Well, more good news. Strength training (whether with weights, resistance bands, body weight or machines) is more effective if we do it in the late afternoon or evening. When the Examine.com team analysed dozens of studies, they found that strength training was more effective done in the evening. No one understands why. Some experts think it’s because our muscles are relaxed and warmed up, while others think it’s due to certain hormones, released later in the day, that make our joints and tendons less prone to soreness. Either way, perceived exertion is lower in the evening, which means we can work harder, with less exhaustion and fewer injuries. In other words, we get more muscle bang for our hard-working buck.
So, tip 3 is to strength train in the evening, if you can.
My fourth tip is to use micro-dosing – which means small chunks of strength training 3-4 times a week, rather than hour-long sessions. A new study found shorter sessions to be just as effective as longer sessions. Granted, we’ll need to do them more often. But for me, 10-15 minutes every other evening is far less intimidating than hour long sessions.
My fifth tip is to use compound or multi-joint exercises – movements that work multiple muscles in a single move, as opposed to using machines which typically work an isolated muscle. Machines are fine if you like them, have lots of time and/or a gym membership. But if you’re time-short (or dislike strength training), multi-joint exercises – like squats, lunges, and push-ups which all work multiple muscles groups – are infinitely more efficient.
My sixth tip for shortening your training time, is to use heavier weights, if you can. Fewer reps with heavier weights will have the same effect as more reps with lighter weights. And different moves will require different weights. So if you’re training at home, consider investing in a set of adjustable weights. I’m investigating these at the moment, so if anyone has a recommendation please leave a comment in the box.
My seventh tip is to listen to a podcast or put on a favourite TV programme as you lift/push/pull. The time will pass more quickly if your mind has something interesting to dwell on. Just make sure you’re doing your movements correctly. There are lots of programmes on YouTube, or find a personal trainer to get you started. There’s plenty of interesting tips and ideas on this recent YouTube programme from Rhonda Patrick and the impressively muscled Prof Brad Schoenfeld (who thinks resistance training is the single most important thing we can do to age well, yes – more so than cardio!). Incidentally, we’re big fans of Rhonda’s longevity work. Do check out her podcast.
Lastly, an eighth tip (although I’ve yet to trial this personally): supplementing with creatine has been shown to increase muscle, enhance strength training and aid recovery in many studies. In fact creatine is one of the supplements-for-ageing recommended by the Examine.com team after studies found that – in conjunction with resistance training – it improved muscle and bone density in the legs of older people, with particularly good effects in women. In this study participants took 0.05 grams of creatine monohydrate per kilogram of body weight, twice a day (typically 4g per day in two doses).
I’ve ordered mine. But if you’re already using creatine, please let us know if it’s working!
So there you have it:
- Check your vitamin D levels and/or take a daily supplement
- Make sure you’re eating sufficient protein
- Do your strength training in the late afternoon or evening
- Strength train in short 10-20 minute bursts, 3-4 times a week
- Use multi-joint exercises for added efficiency
- Use heavier weights where you can
- Ease the boredom with a podcast, TV show or anything else
- Consider supplementing with creatine
Most importantly of all, keep using your muscles by staying active. As I’ve written before, strength training comes in many guises – carrying baskets of logs, bags of shopping and grandchildren all count. As do restraining boisterous dogs-on-leads, heaving yourself over a stile and pushing yourself up (no hands) from a chair.
Incidentally, longevity experts suggest that if we’re really short of time, we focus on the lower body (yes, that’s squats, lunges and getting up from a chair without hands). Why? Because at least if our legs are strong we’ll keep mobility issues at bay.
Happy strength building and a happy new year!