As you age, you lose roughly 5-8% of muscle mass each decade after you turn 30. This might not sound like much, but the average American male is 5'9" and weighs ~200 lbs. Each decade, that is around 10 lbs of muscle lost. By the time you’re 60 years old, you’ll have lost 30 lbs of muscle.
This isn’t just about looking good at the beach. Sarcopenia (progressive, age-related muscle
loss) is a major contributor to disability in older adults as it increases risks of falls and
vulnerability to injury. Sarcopenia is usually accompanied by a progressive increase in fat mass
and increased insulin resistance, which can cause blood sugar problems (Volpi et al. 2004). Along with getting on a good resistance training program and getting strong (the stronger you
are the more force you can produce and absorb e.g. from falls), it is also important for older
adults to be training muscular power as well.
How does muscle power help me as I age?
Preventing yourself from falling is a very quick process. Recovering from a stumble involves sensory nerves sending a signal from your lower limbs to your spinal cord and back, forcing your muscles to contract in under a second with enough force to regain balance. As you age, along with losing size, your muscles lose contractile velocity, the speed at which they reach max contraction.
“A decrease in muscle power has more significant implications for risk of hip fracture, performance in daily tasks, and functional independence than a decrease in strength.”
- (Evans, 2000)
One great way to train power is through plyometric exercise. Plyometric exercises are movements that utilize the stretch-shortening cycle of muscle, when muscle is stretched then shortened rapidly, using muscle force and elastic force at the same time. This process is similar to how a trampoline works.
And trampolines are exactly what this study by Franchi et al. used to train plyometrics in elderly adults. Their participants, ages 65-76 years, underwent a six-week-long exercise program using a Tramp Trainer, a seated trampoline device that resembles a leg press machine. At the end of the study, they found increases in lower limb power AND muscle size, which is a win-win.
Now not everybody has a Tramp Trainer, but there are plenty of other everyday substitutes that
can help active agers get more explosive. And if you used to train frequently, but have slowed down as you age, don't worry: your body is extremely adaptable.
Active aging in action
You may have heard of Joan MacDonald, a 73-year-old woman who's captured the hearts and "Hearts" of the fitness industry. (If you'd like to add to those Likes, you can find her at @trainwithjoan on Instagram.)
She started weight training and tracking macros in January 2017, when she was 70 years old. Suffering with acid reflux, vertigo, and arthritis, she decided enough was enough when her doctor said she needed to up her heart medication. Her daughter convinced her to join an online transformation group, and taught her to use apps to track her food and workouts.
Joan says she eats five meals a day, and tries not to ban any one food group. She weight trains 5 times a week, and does cardio anywhere from 3-7 times a week.
When asked if she can remember what it was like to be her highest weight of 200lbs, she says, "I know I had a challenge going up and down stairs; huffing and puffing like a train engine." She smiles, adding, "but I can go up and down stairs now."
Joan's caption explained her joy at implementing this plyometric move:
“Who would [have] thought I could do burpees at my age? Like many of you, there was a time I couldn’t even bend down comfortably and sit on the floor, and boy I needed help to get back up again. Just tie 60 lbs around your neck for a day and see what that does to your agility, not to mention my high blood pressure!”
Adding in strength-training and plyometrics to your workout will help ease the pain that comes with aging. And if you don't have a regular workout schedule, it's never to late to start one. Just ask Joan.
Tips for increasing your plyometric workouts
Whether you're approaching a milestone year or you want to encourage your mom or grandpa to get moving, here are some training suggestions.
Start slow. The earlier study noted that they chose the trampoline-modality in order to adopt a safer way to train with older adults. Begin with small changes, and see how your body reacts.
Listen to your body. If a movement cause pain, your body might be telling you you're doing it wrong.
Soreness sucks. (But it sucks less than muscle deterioration.) Your body will be sore, especially if you're just starting out. Keep moving.
It's always advisable to talk to your physician and a fitness professional before starting new physical ventures. If you want to implement plyometric programming into your routine, talk to one of our knowledgeable trainers, and let us help you start a new chapter.