During the past century, the dramatic increase in the average lifespan has been remarkable. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) notes, “Although most babies born in 1900 did not live past age 50, life expectancy at birth now exceeds 83 years in Japan—the current leader—and is at least 81 years in several other countries.”
This increased human longevity, called “society’s greatest achievement” by the NIA, has created situations that previous generations have not had to deal with. The demographers who study trends in health care, employment, and myriad other areas are working in uncharted territories and so are the physicians.
Gerontologists, the medical practitioners who treat older patients, are witnessing great increases in the physical capacities of people who are actively pursuing life while in their 60s, 70s, and 80s! These older patients want to be strong and healthy, despite their age, and for many, this means building strength and muscle mass.
A 70-Year-Old Power Lifter
Instead of puttering around the garden or playing cards with his buddies at the golf course, Jim Yakubovsky, a 70-year-old former coach from Arlington, Texas, spends every other day in the gym pumping iron. Jim is a part of the new paradigm of people who are continuing to stay active as they age.
“I have lifted weights competitively for 30 years,” Jim said. “Due to some injuries, I have just recently retired from competition.”
As it turns out, Jim’s passion for building his body is exactly the right thing for him to be doing at his age. A non-weight training accident several years ago had him consulting with Dr. Michael Duffy of Texas Back Institute who subsequently performed a vertebra fusion operation. The operation was successful, and after recuperation, Dr. Duffy encouraged Jim to continue his weightlifting regimen. Dr. Duffy explained why.
“As we age, our muscle mass is on the decline and our basal metabolism also is lowered. This causes the body to store energy in the form of fat. In order to boost the basal metabolic rate, weight training can build muscle, which burns calories even well after the weight training sessions.
“By building muscle and maintaining a healthy weight, our bodies have the optimum situation to function and fight disease. Weight training can also help build stronger bone mass, which prevents the onset of osteoporosis.”
A Strategy for Strength
There a difference of opinion as to the value of weight training for older people, but Jim Yakubovsky knows what works best for his body.
“You have to have a balance between your weight training and your aerobic work,” he said. “It is also important to include core exercises, especially if you are older than 60. Bone density is increased with resistive weightlifting. While it’s not necessary to lift 500 or 600 (cumulative) pounds during a session, if you are consistently adding weight to your session, you will have stronger bones.”
There are also differences in training for someone Jim’s age as opposed to a younger lifter. He explains.
“After you reach 60, you begin to lose muscle fiber. However, you can continue to add muscle mass and strength. My power numbers were actually better when I was 62 than when I started at age 40. I believe this was due to better training as I learned more about my body.
“In the past year, I have been doing more reps with lighter weight. From time to time, I increase the weight when I feel that it’s getting too easy to lift. The rule-of-thumb is to do fewer reps with heavier weight to build greater muscle mass. If the goal is to lose weight or maintain current size, it is best to do more reps with lighter weight.”
Listen to Your Body
“As you get older, you really must listen to your body,” Jim said. “And you need to know the difference between injury and soreness. As I have gotten older, I have found that my recovery time is longer. Weight training tears the muscles down, and it is critical to have the time for the body to recover. It is during this recovery period when the growth of muscle mass can occur.
“My standard schedule now that I am older is to take two days to recover after a workout. If I work my legs on Monday, I will work my arms and shoulders on Wednesday and my back work on Friday. However, every day I am in the gym I do core work. If someone wants stronger muscles, they must have a strong core. This can be accomplished by doing planks, using lighter weight kettlebells and doing crunches. All are great for building core strength.”
Injuries can happen
“As we get older, we have to be smart about lifting in order to avoid injuries,” Jim said. “The weight should be gradually increased over time. You should be challenged with the weight, but overloading can lead to muscle strains and back injuries.
“I also believe older lifters should do a lot of stretching before and after a workout, and one of my favorite cool down exercises is getting on the rowing machine for about 15 minutes. This helps my back, shoulders, and legs.
“Under any circumstances, no one needs to look like they are 90 when they are only 70! All it takes is regularly working out.”
Is This the New Normal?
Jim Yakubovsky is the poster child for a healthy, active older person. He’s in better shape than many people who are half his age, and he loves life. Dr. Duffy has watched Jim over many years and had a final comment about whether others can maintain this type of lifestyle when they reach 70 and older.
“Each person starts with a set of genes or DNA, which obviously we cannot change,” he said. “Some people’s DNA profiles have higher ability to build and maintain muscle, whereas other people do not. I believe Jim has good genetics for building muscle, and he also puts in the time and effort over the years. Anyone can build muscle at any age, to a certain extent, but keeping it on depends on maintenance and diet!”