Retiring soon? Take up weights, they’ll save your life

Thye benefits of increasing leg strength in your 60s will carry on for years

Thye benefits of increasing leg strength in your 60s will carry on for years Photo: Getty

Forget cogitating on the porch or hanging around the supermarket, hankering for free samples of luncheon meat. One of the great benefits of retiring from work is you have more time to get fit.

More walking or cycling or having a crack at tai chi in the mornings at the park: All good stuff. But it’s not all about getting your heart rate up.

Just as important is improving your leg strength.

You know the story. As we age, our skeletal muscle shrinks and we lose strength and balance. This eventually affects our mobility and independence.

In other words, we’re more prone to falling over, injury and loss of confidence. Also lost is longevity.

Indeed, loss of leg muscle strength is now accepted as a strong predictor of death in older people.

I’m old. Isn’t it too late?

Here’s the good news, according to a new study from the University of Copenhagen:

“Twelve months of heavy resistance training – exercise that makes muscles work against a force – around retirement preserves vital leg strength years later.”

The 450 participants were all recently retired. They were healthy and active.

And they were stratified by sex, weight (BMI), and the ability to get up from a chair without assistance”.

They were then randomly assigned either to:

  • One year of lifting heavy weights three times a week
  • One year of moderate intensity training, involving circuits that incorporated body weight exercises and resistance bands three times a week
  • Or to a comparison group, all of whom were encouraged to maintain their usual levels of physical activity.

Their bone and muscle strength and levels of body fat were measured at the start of the trial, and then again after one, two, and four years.

The findings

According to a statement from the BMJ Open Sports & Exercise Medicine: After four years, 82 people had dropped out, primarily due to lack of motivation or illness.

By then, year 4, the average age of participants was 71 (range 64 to 75).

The participants were “still active based on their daily physical activity, which averaged nearly 10,000 steps, as recorded by activity tracker”.

After four years, there was no difference among the three groups in leg extensor power – the ability to kick a pedal as hard and as fast as possible – handgrip strength, and lean leg mass (weight minus body fat).

There were decreases in all three indicators across the board.

Leg strength, however, was still preserved at the same level in the heavy weights resistance training group.

However, it fell in the moderate intensity training and comparison groups. The researchers suggest this was “possibly because of nervous system changes in response to resistance training”.

The difference between the resistance training group and the others was statistically significant.

Levels of visceral fat – the fat that’s stored around the organs – remained the same in the heavy weights resistance training and moderate intensity exercise groups.

It increased in the comparison group.

Not just strength and mobility

There are other things to keep in mind about the importance of leg strength.

A 2018 study found leg exercise is critical for the health of your brain and nervous system.

The research, published by Frontiers, showed that “using the legs, particularly in weight-bearing exercise, sends signals to the brain that are vital for the production of healthy neural cells”.

This was a groundbreaking study that “fundamentally” altered brain and nervous system medicine”.

It gave doctors “new clues as to why patients with motor neuron disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal muscular atrophy and other neurological diseases often rapidly decline when their movement becomes limited”.

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