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The Telegraph

From anti-ageing your brain to burning fat, why strength training is crucial to midlife health

Be honest with yourself: are you getting weaker? For most people, a mid-to-late-life push to get into shape means starting with cardio: possibly because taking up running or cycling and focusing on legs and lungs feels more like fitness than a workout where you don’t even get out of breath. It’s also easy to associate gym-style weight workouts with vanity, and assume that curls and presses are only worthwhile for people looking to build beach bodies or bulging muscles. But, especially as middle age approaches, strength should probably loom larger in most people’s lives. Increasingly sedentary jobs and those niggling midlife aches and pains that mount up leave us liable to lift less as we age: even innovations like the Ocado van and the wheeled suitcase are leeching strength activity from our lives. Current NHS advice on exercise is that everyone should do “strengthening activities that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) on at least two days a week” – and the benefits of even the most basic strength training are so extensive that it’s ill-advised not to do it. And yet, we simply don’t bother: statistics produced by UK Active in 2018 suggest that only 24 per cent of women aged 19-65 and only 34 per cent of men aged 19-65 met recommended strength training guidelines. More recently, Sport England found over a third of over-55s have seen their strength decline in lockdown. So why should you strength train? Well, for starters, even if you aren’t aiming to pack on muscle, strength training can help prevent the natural loss of lean muscle mass that comes with ageing (the medical term for this loss is sarcopenia). This in turn improves your quality of life and reduces your risk from falls and injuries. In one recent study, researchers looking at muscle tissue biopsied from the legs of cyclists in their 70s found they generally retained their size, fibre composition and other markers of good health across the decades, with those riders who covered the most mileage each month displaying the healthiest muscles, whatever their age. Strength training also increases bone density and reduces the risk of fractures. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, just 30 minutes twice a week of high intensity resistance and impact training was shown to improve bone density, structure and strength in post-menopausal women with low bone mass. What about weight management? Well, firstly, yes there’s some evidence that having more muscle raises your resting metabolic rate, but the effect isn’t as pronounced as you might think. Dr Cedric X Bryant, the American Council on Exercise’s chief science officer, says research suggests that 1lb of muscle only burns about six to seven calories a day. But a strength-based session also ramps up post-workout calorie burning (typically referred to as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC), and the effect gets more pronounced as you learn to lift more weight. For older people, strength is likely to help with existing conditions: an analysis of research suggests that strengthening the muscle groups around affected joints improved function and eased pain in people with osteoarthritis, while in in another study, Finnish researchers found that patients who did strength training exercises twice a week for two years saw more reductions in inflammation, pain, morning stiffness and disease activity when compared with patients who did only range-of-motion exercises. Why strength is the secret to 40-plus fitness – and how to keep midlife muscles strong It’s also good for your brain: every type of exercise improves mood by boosting endorphins, but there’s additional evidence that resistance training in particular can protect against anxiety and depression. And it may also work over the long term: in 2020, researchers from the University of Sydney found that lifting weights could slow and even halt degeneration in brain areas particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s. Researchers are even beginning to understand that strength training works to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke: a study published in 2018 in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found the risk of experiencing these events was roughly 50 per cent lower for those who lifted weights occasionally, compared with those who never did, even when they were not doing the recommended amount of endurance exercise. There are even promising signs that weight training might help your immune system – though only in mice so far. Perhaps more prosaically: being strong simply makes your day to day life better, and keeps you younger for longer. It’s what lets you climb up broken escalators without puffing, stow bags in overhead lockers without assistance, or pick up your grandchildren without worrying about your back. It means you can get up from a chair without making an ‘ooft’ noise, and bend down to tie your shoelaces with ease. Strength is there for carrying shopping, hauling garden waste or being better-than-expected in impromptu bouts of sport. Cardio always comes in handy, and keeping your weight in check is sensible, but strength – especially when it’s developed through exercises that keep you mobile – can be a truly life-proofing trait. And the final bit of good news? Strength doesn’t have to be difficult to develop. Unlike fat loss (mostly down to diet) and cardiovascular health (which tends to involve sweating, or at least being out of breath), it’s entirely possible to develop a respectable level of strength while at home, with something distracting on Netflix. Rests can be fairly long, and workouts can be pretty short – something that isn’t possible with cardio workouts unless they’re fairly intense. As much as building muscle, strength is about training your muscle fibres to fire together – doing movements that get them all working in one direction – which is one reason muscles takes a while to build, but a long time to lose. So: simple to do, immediate results and a guaranteed life-improver – why don’t more people plan to get stronger? Well, one key reason is confusion about what to do: running and cycling are simple and well-catered for. There are dozens of books and apps on them, and if all else fails you can put your trainers on and go. Strength is a bit trickier: while there are dozens of ways to combine the exercises, there’s also the ever-present sense that you might injure yourself if you somehow do it wrong. In reality, none of this should be a concern. You only need to remember a handful of moves and a couple of simple principles, and you’re set for life. We’ve put together a plan to get you started: come back tomorrow for the first part. Tomorrow: We bring you the 20-minute strength workout for every stage of midlife