50 or over? Want to stay independent? Heres how

If you are 50 or older, research indicates that you will lose an average of 0.18kg of muscle per year. It is widely acknowledged that this loss of muscle leads to physical deterioration, functional decline, loss of independence and reduced quality of life. There is evidence, however, that resistance exercise can prevent or slow muscle loss in older people. Despite this, the research up until now has been vague and confusing as to how much exercise and what type of exercise works best for older adults. A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2011, is one of the first to analyze the effect of different training programs on lean body mass and across different age groups.

In the study, 49 different training programs were analyzed from 1990 to 2009. To be part of the study, people had to be at least 50 years of age and untrained. A total of 1357 people participated with an average age of 65.5 years and the programs ranging in length from 10-52 weeks (average 20.5 weeks).

The exercise programs consisted of exercising two to three times per week, at an average intensity of 74.6% of 1RM (the maximum amount that can be lifted in 1 repetition). Each exercise session consisted of an average of 8 different exercises, being performed 10 times (repetitions) followed by a 110 second rest period and with a total of 20 sets per session. Most of these studies corresponded with the guidelines of resistance exercise for older adults as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.

Overall, there was an increase of 1.1kg per person. The study showed that the greater the amount of training, the greater the increase in muscle. The study also showed that the younger the person, the more muscle that was gained. Therefore, for optimal results, older adults should begin resistance exercise as early as possible. A higher training volume appears to be better for adaptive purposes.

The study found that most of the resistance exercise programs simply increased the amount of load lifted over the trial period (i.e. the intensity increased); however, studies involving younger age people followed a periodization model of progression in intensity, volume and more. This indicates that a single set/fixed volume exercise programs may not be as effective in increasing muscle in older adults and that these should include a systematic progression of training volume.

This study gives valuable insight as to the factors that are most effective in helping healthy older adults maintain or increase their muscle mass. It shows that the current exercise guidelines for older adults might be too cautious and that adjusting them in the light of this review is likely to improve the health and lifestyle benefits achieved.

Bodywise Health Comment

1. Your Program Must be Safe

First, it is recommended that you get a medical clearance from your doctor and then to begin a program under the supervision and instruction of a health professional. This is especially important if you are a beginner or have a physical impairment (e.g. arthritis, osteoporosis, etc.).

When beginning, start slowly and progress slowly. It is wise to begin at a lower intensity (e.g. 60-80% of the load that can be lifted once) with more repetitions (8-20) and fewer sets (e.g. 2) for the first 4-6 weeks of training.

2. Your Program Must be Effective

For best results, it must focus on resolving the physical deficits that have been identified in your initial examination. Generally, your body will adapt to the postures and movements that you do most in life. As one physiotherapist once said, People, who sit in a chair for prolonged amounts of time, eventually become a chair”. The initial examination must, therefore, be precise and comprehensive enough to determine not just the source of biomechanical problems (stiff/short muscles, restricted joints, etc.) but the cause of the problems (e.g. faulty posture and incorrect movement patterns because of weakness, tiredness or lack of awareness, etc.). Resolving physical deficits involves optimizing the parts (increasing the control and strength of muscles, freeing stiff joints, etc.) as well as addressing the whole (improving posture, correcting movement habits and fixing work settings, etc.). Essentially, it involves bringing the body back into ideal biomechanical alignment by increasing the control of stabilizing muscles, the strength of prime mover muscles, and the length of muscles that are tight, short or stiff.

It is important, to begin with, activities that test your balance and muscle stabilizer control, as this forms the foundation upon which strengthening can take place. For this reason, clinical pilates and exercises involving balance, free weights or cables are recommended. By improving joint control, they make everyday activities easier and help to protect against physically challenging or unexpected activities.

Your body is extremely efficient with adapting to exercise. Consequently, conditioning exercise programs can lose their effectiveness quite quickly depending on the type of exercise and the condition of the exerciser. To ensure exercise programs remain optimally effective, these programs need to be modified every four weeks for beginners, every three weeks for regular exercisers and every two weeks for elite athletes.
The instructing health professional must have an understanding of correct loading (i.e. how much load is effective to produce results without being too much to cause injury or too little to have no effect). Knowing the physiology of muscle is also important. Fast twitch fibers respond best to short amounts of higher intensity exercise (and are primarily responsible for the increase in muscle size), and slow twitch which respond better to lower intensity, higher volume/increasing time exercise. Consequently, better results will be achieved if the intensity, amount and duration of the exercises are in sync with the type of muscles being exercised.

3. Your Program Must be Fun

Let’s face it; if you don’t enjoy an exercise program, the chances are that you won’t continue with it. It is important that whatever you enjoy doing that your program fits in with this. If you like to walk or run at home alone, then doing some balance, stabilization, strengthening and stretching exercises on a swiss ball or foam roller at the end of your walk or run would be ideal. If a gym is what you prefer, then go for it. Or if enjoy something a little more personal, then clinical pilates might be the way to go. The key is to give an exercise program a trial for four to six weeks. If you don’t like it then or haven’t got the results that you want then try something else. Eventually, you will find something that you enjoy and which works for you.

4. Your Program Must be Convenient

Life is so busy these days that fitting something else it might be difficult. If doing your program is easy and convenient however, you are more likely to stick at it. And if you stick at it, you are more likely to see results which then become self-reinforcing.

At Bodywise Health, we specialize in providing conditioning exercise programs that are designed to prevent injury as well as to correct or rehabilitate physical problems. So if you are concerned about becoming weaker or if you suffer from arthritis, osteoporosis, back or neck pain, Bodywise Health can provide you with a program to help you get your strength and life back.


Peterson MD, Sen A & Gordon PM. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2011; 43(2): 249-258

For more information or for an appointment, please call Bodywise Health on 1 300 263 994.

Please note:

  • Rebates are available through your private insurance extras cover
  • For complex or chronic conditions, you may qualify for the EPC (Enhanced Primary Care Program) allowing you to receive 5 allied health services each calendar year with a referral from your GP. For more information, please call Bodywise Health now on 1 300 263 994.