Lifting weights in old age does more than just keep your muscles strong : ScienceAlert

New research into weightlifting has revealed two insights: that the practice is able to strengthen the connections between nerves and muscles, and that this strengthening can also occur in the later years of our lives.

We actually begin to lose muscle mass before age 40, caused in part by a reduction in muscle fibers that occurs when motor neurons — cells in the brain and spinal cord that tell our bodies to move — break down.

This decline is unstoppable, but the new study shows it can be slowed down significantly. According to the results of the study, strength training strengthens the connections between nerves and muscles, protecting the motor neurons in the spinal cord – essential for a well-functioning body.

“Previously, researchers were unable to prove that strength training can strengthen the connection between motor neurons and muscles. Our study is the first to present findings suggesting that this is indeed the case,” said exercise physiologist Casper Søndenbroe of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

This is partly due to the challenges of taking enough tissue in locations where muscle and nerve cells connect so that meaningful measurements can be made. To remedy this, the researchers instead looked for biomarkers related to the stability of the connections between neurons and muscles in participants’ biopsy samples.

The study included 38 healthy, elderly men with an average age of 72 years who were asked to complete a 16-week course of moderately intense weight lifting training with leg presses, leg extensions, leg curls and two upper arm exercises. Another group of 20 healthy, older men, again with a mean age of 72 years, did not do any strength training and was used as a control comparison.

Weight training was carried out three times a week and after two months (halfway through the experiment) the differences in muscle size and fitness were visible. Researchers collected muscle biopsies and found observable changes in the biomarkers.

From stitches in the back to pain in the knees, the indication is that strength training can slow down some of this breakdown between muscles and the nervous system, without actually reversing it. The researchers suggest that by starting earlier in life, ‘reserves’ can be built up on which the body can fall back.

“The study shows that even if you start late in life, you can still make a difference,” says Søndenbroe.

“Sure, the sooner you start, the better, but it’s never too late — even if you’re 65 or 70 years old. Your body can still benefit from heavy strength training.”

While this study was done in men, it also applies to women: For example, older women, who are more prone to osteoporosis, benefit just as much from resistance training as men.

As many populations around the world continue to live longer and longer, maintaining a good quality of life in our twilight becomes increasingly important – and that includes keeping the muscles working as well as possible.

While there are certain biological processes that cannot be stopped with age, research has shown that diet, as well as exercise, can protect against some of the damage that old age can leave us vulnerable to.

The next stage in this particular area of ​​research is to find out how strength training helps nerves and muscles stay together.

“Now we need to determine which specific mechanisms allow strength training to strengthen the connection to the nervous system,” says Søndenbroe.

“To do that, we need to introduce other methods, but our goal remains to ensure that as many seniors as possible not only live longer, but also experience well-being.”

The research is published in the American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology.

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