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Muscle strength is essential for living independently. Maintaining it for as long as possible becomes very important as we age. It allows us to do everyday tasks more easily, such as climbing stairs, carrying heavy shopping, opening doors, lifting grandchildren and gardening. People with poor muscle strength are at higher risk of falls and being admitted to hospital. However, often a loss in muscle strength isn’t noticed until it really affects our daily lives, for example suddenly opening a car door or getting up from a chair seems much more challenging than it used to be!

Muscle strength naturally declines at older ages – estimates suggest we lose 50% of our muscle strength between the ages of 25 and 85. Whilst we cannot completely reverse or stop this decline, we can do things to prevent and delay the loss of our muscle strength. This will help to stop us getting sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the excessive loss of muscle mass and strength. Having sarcopenia means you are more likely to have a fall or a fracture, be admitted to hospital or move to long term care. However, unlike conditions such as osteoporosis, very few people have heard of sarcopenia or know how it can be prevented.

So how can we prevent and delay loss of muscle strength? There have been many studies on this to date. Good nutrition is important. However, evidence on the impact of nutritional changes (such as increasing protein consumption) on muscle strength is limited, and it is more helpful when someone is recovering from being unwell than as a way of preventing muscle loss. Some supplements might help to improve muscle mass, but not necessarily muscle strength, and at the moment, there aren’t any other alternatives like medicines that might increase muscle strength.    

The best evidence for improving our muscle strength is resistance training. Many studies show that resistance training has positive effects on muscle strength, muscle mass and how well people can carry out everyday activities. It also improves quality of life, wellbeing and mental health. By resistance training, we mean weight training with free weights or resistance machines, exercises using your body weight, or using resistance bands. Activities such as yoga, aerobics, climbing stairs, gardening etc are a good starting point if you have never done resistance training before. But once you feel strong, you need to keep challenging your muscles and the best way to do this is by resistance training.

Most people do not do enough resistance training and it is often considered the ‘forgotten physical activity guideline’. Whilst most people are aware that they need to remain active and do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, people are much less aware of the muscle strengthening guidelines. It is possible to be fairly active and do lots of aerobic exercise such as jogging, but still have poor muscle strength, so that opening a car door is difficult! Studies have found that on average only 17.3% of adults across 28 European countries carried out sufficient muscle strengthening activities to meet guidelines.

Given the importance of resistance training, we wanted to understand how we might encourage resistance training around the point of retirement. We decided to focus on the point of retirement specifically because this is a key life-event with lots of changes. Therefore, taking up a new behaviour, such as resistance training, might be easier to start and maintain. We spoke to a diverse group of 30 people who were considering retiring or who had recently retired. They identified the following barriers to resistance training:

  • It is not clear what resistance training is and which activities are most helpful for maintaining strong muscles.
  • Current guidelines do not state how much resistance training should be done in a session, or at what intensity.
  • There is little awareness of the negative consequences of muscle weakness.
  • Resistance training is not as visible in society as cardiovascular activities such as walking and jogging.
  • It can be difficult to know where and how to start.
  • Some people feel they are too weak to resistance train.

To provide more information, we developed a video to help to overcome these barriers. Please take a look! We also summarise the information below:

How intense does resistance training need to be? It needs to be carried out to an intensity where your muscles feel warm, tense and shaky by the end of a set of exercises. If you are not very strong, building strength-based activities into daily life will help, such as carrying heavy shopping and climbing stairs. However, once you are feeling stronger, you will need to challenge your muscles more to see the full benefits of improved strength.

How can I train? You can use your own body weight or weights at home, go to the gym, join a strength class…there are lots of possibilities and it is worth trying different ones to see how you get on. For working out at home there are some great resources from the NHS. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy also has exercises for people with long term health conditions.

What if it is it painful? Some pain the next day, especially when you first start, is a sign that the training is working – this is normal! When doing resistance training, your muscles will feel a bit warm, tense and shaky. But if you feel a sudden sharp pain during exercise, stop and seek advice from a healthcare professional.

We can improve our muscle strength at all stages of life, and it’s never too late to give it a try!

Happy training!

Rachael Frost & Snehal Pinto Pereira

University College London