Why you should keep your muscles strong as you get older.

The American College of Sport’s Medicine reports that muscular performance deteriorates at a rate of about 5% per decade. This accumulates to a 30-40% loss of functional strength over an adult lifespan. Soon, these people will have difficulty climbing a flight of stairs, walking, or even simply standing up from a chair. Seems like a pretty bleak future, doesn’t it? Don’t worry—there’s still hope! Strength training can keep your muscle loss at bay.

The University of Michigan recently published a study that discovered some great news for aging adults.They studied a group of people for about 20 weeks, and found that with progressive resistance training, the average subject gained 2.42 pounds of lean muscle and increased their overall strength by about 30%!

Now, I’m not saying that every 50-year-old should become a bodybuilder. First, check with your doctor, then start out slow doing some simple bodyweight exercises, such as squats, modified push-ups, and lying hip bridges. You could even start out with some simplified tai chi or yoga, which will help you with flexibility, as well as strength.

The key is to gradually increase your weight or reps, but be sure to keep within your limits. For example, if you’re suffering from osteoporosis or have a heart condition, you’ll need to be more wary of your level of exercise. However, that’s not an excuse to not move at all, since your health problems will most likely increase if you remain sedentary.

So what if you’re under 50? Does that mean you should ignore strength training until then? Heavens, no. The more muscle you’re able to build, even in your 30s and 40s, will affect how strong you are later. Even 2 days a week can make a huge difference. If you’re just starting out, or you’re not quite sure how to begin, engage a fitness trainer. Some are specialized in working with older people, so if you’re concerned about your health problems, there are experts out there who can help you do the exercises that are perfect for your age, weight, and level of health.

I’m going to give you a personal example of how much strength training and staying active can affect your health in old age. My grandparents on my father’s side, though divorced, had the same habits: watch television, eat fast food, and move as little as possible. My grandmother had several strokes before the age of 60. Although she recovered slowly from most of them, she refused to exercise and change her habits. She passed away in her early 70s. My grandfather, who swore that whiskey and jalapeños could cure anything, also loved sitting in front of the television, and rarely went out at all. He also passed away in his early 70s, after suffering from Alzheimer’s (and forgetting that he was divorced from my grandmother and had been for 40 years. It was sweet, but sad).

On the other hand, my mother’s parents, who are in their late 80s, go on a walk every single day, and my grandfather lifts weights every day. (My grandmother actually catches my grandfather flexing in the mirror sometimes—how adorable is that?!) They eat from their fresh garden, which they tend to themselves, and my grandfather still mows the lawn and shovels snow. They’ve both beaten brief bouts of cancer in the past few years, and they’re still going strong!

You might think that genetics have something to do with it, or it might just be pure chance. But I’ve seen, first-hand, the difference in their lifestyles. So every time I’m binge-watching on Netflix, I try to make up for it by doing something active, just in case.

So I’d encourage you, whether you’re 30 or 90, to add strength training (with a little bit of cardio) to your weekly habits, and build your muscles up healthy and strong!

~J. Rebecca Sanders