The benefits of strength and weight training as we start getting a bit older

Georgia Lewis - 20 April 2022

Fitness Fitness

A balanced exercise routine that focuses on strength and weight training pays long-term fitness dividends. Personal trainers share their top tips and bust a few myths along the way.

As we start getting a bit older, many of us find that switching to an exercise routine that focuses on strength and weight training gives better results than an intense, cardio-focused regime. And for some of us, the realities of life mean we are starting a proper fitness routine for the first time or trying to get back into it after a long hiatus.

No matter where you are on your exercise journey, it’s never too late to start getting fitter or change things up.

Why is strength and weight training important as we get older?

Personal trainers tend to agree that strength and weight training are beneficial to more mature bodies – and the science backs them up. Researchers from around the world have concluded that adding techniques such as resistance training and weights to your exercise routine will help with mobility, physical strength, heart health, independence, prevention of chronic illnesses and overall improvement to quality of life

Lucy Arnold, personal trainer and owner of Lucy Locket Loves activewear, explains: “Weight training is good for maintaining lean muscle mass because of the anabolic nature of weight training. It keeps the muscles stronger as you get older and can help keep you mobile for longer and stay fitter for day-to-day life.”

You might have only heard the term ‘anabolic’ in relation to steroids and drug scandals in the sporting world. But it actually means a metabolic process where complex molecules are synthesised from simpler molecules. In short, it is the process that enables building up muscle mass – and the good news is you don’t need to buy dodgy juice from the back of a van in the gym car park to experience the benefits!

For women in particular, strength and weight training are especially beneficial during and after the menopause, when oestrogen levels drop, affecting bone density and muscle mass.

Zara Groves, founder of Zara Groves Fitness, says weight training improves bone density, which helps prevent osteoporosis and reduces the risk of fractures. As a bonus, Zara says the improvement in muscle mass from weight training makes us “look toned” and the metabolism speeds up if there is more muscle mass.

Examples of strength and weight training

Online fitness trainer and yoga teacher, Jayne Nicholls says, “lifting, pulling, and pushing can be integrated into any exercise programme.” 

There are different ways to incorporate this into an exercise routine. Lifting free weights, such as dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells, is a classic technique and one that can be easily done at home or in the gym. If you prefer going to the gym (or you’ve got the budget to install a home gym), suspension equipment and weight machines are great, but be sure to ask for advice on how to use the machines safely and effectively if you are unsure. 

Resistance bands – which are basically giant rubber bands – are one of the cheapest ways to provide resistance during stretching exercises. A quick search online will reveal rubbery rolls of resistance bands for less than a tenner. You can cut them to size, they are portable and easy to adapt to most workouts.

Handily, your own bodyweight can be used to build muscle mass without spending a penny. Squats, push-ups, chin-ups, planking – these are all ways to reap the benefits of strength training no matter where you are.

Busting myths about cardio

Moving towards strength and weight training does not, however, mean ditching cardio altogether. As Grace Turner, founder of Fitness with Grace, explains, cardio is often associated with “the 80s, lycra, sweatbands, running and sweating … but it’s just an abbreviation of cardiovascular, meaning the heart.”

“Getting the heart rate up trains the heart and a lot of weight and resistance training is just as effective as traditional cardio workouts, if not better, because what we’re doing is lifting the heart rate up by lifting something heavy and then bringing it back down again when you rest,” says Grace. “The idea that you won’t get any cardio work from weight training is a complete myth.”

Variety is vital

A varied fitness routine not only keeps things interesting, but it means you get multiple health benefits. Grace says you don’t need to do three weight training sessions a week or go for three runs because “the best training programme for anyone is variety”. As an example of a balanced and varied routine, she suggests a brisk, hour-long walk a few times a week, one or two weight training sessions per week and some mobility work, such as a yoga class, to “cover all bases”. 

Libby Stevenson, a yoga teacher who specialises in tailoring classes for different stages of life, says that yoga helps with balance, posture, coordination, flexibility and breathing, as well as strengthening muscles and bones: “It is suitable for anyone who hasn’t exercised in a while or is looking for a gentle, non-impact way to move.”

Jayne sums up the ethos of exercising as we get older with her three tips:

  • Acceptance of what you can do and how far you can push yourself is so important. Over-exercising as an older adult is potentially harmful.
  • Balance and variety are crucial.
  • Mental health is as important as physical health, which is why any exercise programme should be achievable and fun.