According to Singapore’s Department of Statistics, 13.7% of the resident population in 2018 are aged 65 years and over (Wong, 2018, pp.14). Thanks to advancements in science and technology, life expectancy at birth have increased from 80.9 years in 2008 to 83.2 years in 2018 and life expectancy at age 65 has increased from 19.3 years in 2008 to 21.1 years in 2018 (Wong, 2019, pp. 20).
While modern medication and medical procedures can prolong our lifespan, it’s not always accompanied by having an adequate quality of life. Focusing on just the physical aspect of life, having a good quality of life for older adults refers to one’s ability to perform activities of daily living unassisted. Being able to go to the bathroom yourself, clothe yourself and feed yourself are things that most of us take for granted. Sadly, not everyone over the age of 65 can perform these tasks unassisted. I dare say with almost absolute certainty that you will not enjoy your golden years if they’re spent requiring assistance for your day-to-day living. Unfortunately, some of us have been dealt a bad hand in life and are in a situation that we have no control over. For the rest of us, how you spend the final few decades of your life is in your hands. Would you prefer to reap the fruits of your hard work and engage in the activities you enjoy? Perhaps golf or touring the world? Or would you prefer to spend your hard-earned money on doctors, hospitals and medication while requiring 24/7 care? All of us would undoubtedly choose the former, but only a handful would actively work to make sure that they remain strong and healthy as they age.
Ageing is an inevitable and irreversible part of life. While we can’t halt the process, we can definitely dampen its effects by making a conscious effort to stay active. Now, what constitutes as staying active? Common convention would advise that older people engage in a routine of predominantly aerobic activities such as brisk walking, cycling or swimming and for goodness sake, don’t lift anything remotely heavy or you’ll hurt yourself.
There lies a huge problem with this advice. Although brisk walking, cycling or swimming can produce enough cardiorespiratory stress to keep your heart and lungs working well, it’s not sufficient to preserve your strength and bone density. Strength, the ability to exert force against an external resistance, is something that you lose as you age. For the majority of us, this occurs due to inactivity. When you expose yourself to physical stress followed by sufficient recovery, you adapt to that specific stress. Muscles adapt to the stress imposed on them, and if they are not regularly used to produce enough force, they lose their ability to do so. Standing up from a chair, carrying groceries, climbing stairs – simple tasks become an issue for older, weaker adults.
When these tasks get hard, a common reaction is to avoid doing those things and then begins a horrible downward spiral. The harder things get, the less people want to do them and the more their muscles atrophy until they’re unable to stand up from a chair on their own. Instead of thinking that they have to do something to stop themselves degrading further, the common convention would be that they have to “act their age” – avoid strenuous activities, have more rest and take things easy. This is terrible advice and makes the situation worse than it already is. If inactivity and age are causing you to gradually get weaker and you can’t halt the ageing process, being even more inactive would only serve to worsen the condition. I’ve observed well-meaning children, wanting for their parents to be comfortable, purchase a wheelchair or personal mobility device so that their parents have an easier time getting around. I understand that it’s a tough decision to make but making a weakened individual even more inactive isn’t helping their wellbeing. In the long run, their parents may lose so much strength that they lose their mobility and are even more dependent on caregivers for their daily routine. Not only is a weak individual less able to care for themselves, chronic loss of muscle has been found to be highly correlated to mortality.
Accompanying the loss of muscle mass is the loss of bone mass. Bones, like muscle, adapt to the stress that is being placed on them. Stress the bones by bearing load and they adapt by getting denser. The absence of skeletal loading, which is typical for older people, would lead to osteopenia and osteoporosis. While osteoporosis affects both genders, females are at a higher risk with an estimated 80% of those affected being female (National Osteoporosis Foundation, n.d).
Since the absence of skeletal and muscular loading causes bone and muscle loss, the best way to reverse this would be with weight-bearing exercises – to load the muscles and bones. Jogging, cycling, swimming and walking, the most commonly prescribed forms of exercise for older folks, is not considered to be weight-bearing exercises in the sense that strength training is. Since the only weight borne during these exercises is your own bodyweight (even less for swimming and cycling), your bones are not sufficiently stressed to cause any form of adaptation above their current levels. The force production levels of these activities are also so low that they are unable to cause any long-term increases in strength.
We have worked with many older clients who are already physically active before training with us and report that they have been walking/jogging/swimming multiple times per week. One would think that these folks are strong enough to perform activities of daily living with ease since they’re so active, but you’ll be surprised at the number of individuals who lacked the strength to squat down and stand back up unassisted.
This loss of strength can be slowed down significantly with barbell strength training. Coupled with a methodical strength training program and you’ll notice a vast improvement in a relatively short period of time. For our clients that have experienced an increase in their strength, they say that strength training, not jogging/swimming/cycling, has made a big difference in their lives.
Your body is going to lose muscle and bone mass whether you like it or not. Strength training can slow down this process and it’s up to you on how you’d like to spend the golden years of your life. It’s not too late to start. Get stronger now, you’ll be glad you did.
- Wong, WK. (2018). Population Trends, 2018. Department of Statistics Singapore.
- Wong, WK. (2019). Yearbook of Statistics Singapore 2019. Department of Statistics Singapore.
- National Osteoporosis Foundation. Preventing Fractures, What Women Need to Know. (2019, September 1). Retrieved from https://www.nof.org/preventing-fractures/general-facts/what-women-need-to-know/