According to the Department of Health, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are the leading cause of pain and disability in England, with sickness absence from work due to MSD costing £14.3 billion per year.

Encouraging more people to begin weight training, therefore, could save the NHS a considerable slice of its budget.

Unlike aerobic exercise, weight training puts stress and force on the bones, making them stronger and denser. It also results in muscle hypertrophy (an increase in the size of muscle cells) which increases this force exerted on the bones.

Generally, we gain muscle mass until the age of 30 and lose around 3-5% each decade after. This process accelerates at the age of 75, increasing the risk of musculoskeletal conditions like sarcopenia and osteoporosis.

Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass and strength, affects balance, gait and ability to perform everyday tasks, increasing the risk of falls and fractures. Osteoporosis is linked to sarcopenia but refers specifically to the weakening of bones.

Whilst cells called osteoblasts build new bone tissue as other cells called osteoclasts remove older bone tissue, our total amount of bone tissue is maintained. But, generally, when we hit our mid-thirties, this process falls out of balance and bone tissue starts to decrease, weakening the bones, making them fragile and more susceptible to breaking.

Osteoporosis and the menopause

Because declining oestrogen levels contribute to a decrease in bone mineral density (BMD), post-menopausal women are most at risk from osteoporosis. Women also lose calcium in their bones as they get older and their joints become dry through lack of lubrication. This can give rise to various bone and joint problems, so regular strength exercise is important to keep the muscles tight and joints lubricated.

Research has demonstrated the positive effects of high-intensity resistance training on post-menopausal women. One study found that women on a two-day-week resistance training programme gained an average of one per cent bone muscle density in the femoral neck and lumbar spine whilst a control group, which did no exercise at all, lost 2.5 per cent and 1.8 per cent BMD at these sites, respectively.

How do I start weight training?

Possibly the biggest obstacle for many older people is the ‘it’s too late for me now’ attitude. Physical decline is viewed as an inevitable part of the ageing process, despite evidence showing that weight training can slow down the prevalence of musculoskeletal conditions.

Safety can be another concern, especially for those worried about straining themselves or falling during exercise. However, weight training does the opposite of increasing the risk of falls; it builds strength and improves balance.

Eddie Brocklesby, 77, says that it is “never too late” to start exercising. The grandmother of four is the UK’s oldest female Ironman triathlete. But contrary to what people might expect, Brocklesby came to exercise later in life. “I didn’t start exercising until I was 50,” she says. “I watched a friend run a marathon and thought I’d like to run a half one.”

She joined a running group through which she gradually took on bigger challenges. In 2015, she completed her first Ironman in 16 hours and six minutes. She also founded Silverfit, a charity encouraging wellbeing and fitness for over 45s.

Brocklesby believes that the basic benefits of strength training are the most valuable. “Studies discuss osteoporosis and other health issues but falling over is the most costly thing for an older person and makes your chances of falling again more likely,” she says. “Strength training greatly reduces this risk.”

Weight training at home

Attending an exercise class or joining a gym can make strength training a more sociable experience, but it is not essential.

Strength training can be done from the comfort of your home by moving or lifting solid objects. For example, try filling plastic milk containers with water, and sitting in a chair or standing upright. Curl the milk containers upwards, keeping your elbows to your sides, in an arch towards the shoulders. In doing so, this engages the muscles in your forearms.

Strength training can be easily incorporated into a busy lifestyle too: the NHS’ minimum recommendation is only two sessions a week along with 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise to improve muscle mass and athletic ability.

Advice for beginners

Finally, anyone who is a beginner to weight training should educate the muscles before training them. While the body will accept these new exercises readily on first go, they could cause muscular stiffness or pain if doing any different movements than they are used to in such a strict manner.

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