Resistance isn’t futile

The importance of weight training for men aged 50+

By Mike Harris, Head Coach, Wythenshawe Weightlifting Club

It seems, for many, to be an acceptable fact, that once we turn fifty, our bodies and minds no longer perform the way they used to, or how we’d like them to.

It is a fact that past the age of 40, men’s muscle cells shrink in size and number. This affects our strength, balance and co-ordination. Combined with genetics, diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, and especially lack of physical activity, the average man’s cell demise is greatly exacerbated.

Fortunately, growing evidence and experience is now showing that what was once seen as an inevitable decline can be slowed or even reversed.

A range of studies have confirmed that resistance/weight training can actually reverse the process of muscle breakdown (catabolism). Training allows our bodies to build muscle, burn fat and improve bone density all at the same time.

The major contributing factor to muscle loss in the over 50s, can be attributed to the reduced production of the bodies anabolic hormones, such as DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and testosterone.

There are many chemical or supplemental methods to help kick start your hormonal production. However, the cheapest and simplest approach is to add resistance training to your weekly exercise programme.

This gives you more energy, while increasing and maintaining muscle mass and preventing fat accumulating, particularly belly fat.

Once you have decided to regain control of your body you must follow a few basic steps:

  1. Before starting any exercise, make sure you are free from injury.
  2. Check that training won’t aggravate any underlying health issues. If in doubt contact your GP to clarify your health status.

To keep yourself safe, you’ll need to work with an experienced weight training coach, or personal trainer, who’s familiar with working with people of your age. It will take patience and dedication on all parts to achieve your goals. Your primary focus should be on your core and abdominal area. This is the key to success. The centre of your body has such a pivotal role, quite literally, in everything you do.

I can speak from experience. Three bouts of inflammatory bowel disease resulted in major surgery in 1994, and again in 1998, and 2004. On all three occasions I was left with a 30cm scar.

I was told, following my first operation in ‘94, that I would never lift weights again. However, following careful guidelines and a planned training programme, 355 days after my operation, I won the north-west Olympic Weightlifting title in the 64kg men’s class.

I was determined that after each surgery, I would gradually get well, recover and slowly rebuild the weight loss, which was predominantly muscle wastage. I wanted to be able to move and train, and return to competitive weightlifting. My quest was a long, painful and emotional journey, but I made it and if I can, so can anybody.

I remember, following surgery, not being able to get out of an armchair without help, due to the scars and pain from the operation: it reminded me of my uncle, who was old and overweight. He struggled to negotiate the same action. I promised myself there and then that I would never be like that.

So, for individuals who have stopped training, or anyone starting physical activity for the first time, be patient.  Start with gentle aerobic exercises, walking, swimming, yoga, pilates, or jogging. This will be your initiation into resistance weight training. All of the above-mentioned activities will already be kickstarting your body into responding to a healthier change. This will make you feel better, your mood and outlook will improve, as will your respiratory system, skeletal system, cardiovascular system and obviously your muscles and tendons.

In my considerable experience of coaching, mentoring, guiding, and supporting men over 50, the first hurdle is for any individual to have the confidence to enter a weightlifting gym. Once you’re there, you’ll quickly get involved and feel part of a fraternity striving for the same personal achievements. It’ll have an immediate and noticeable impact on your physical and mental well-being.

The symbiotic relationship between our mind and body is now better understood. Studies show that people involved in resistance training experience many benefits. These include improved sleep patterns, reduced levels of depression and anxiety and improved general health wellbeing.

People who suffer with anxiety will be aware of how debilitating that condition can be, as the body releases cortisol, a stress hormone, from the adrenal cortex. Over a sustained period, that can lead to heart disease and high blood pressure. Testosterone is an anabolic hormone (bodybuilding) whilst cortisol is the catabolic hormone, breaking down muscle tissue.

When starting a weight-based resistance training regime, combined with healthier lifestyle choices, you will be well on your way to reconstructing your body composition. You will build muscle mass and reduce fat. You will drastically reduce your chances of suffering from many health conditions. This includes reduced levels of osteoporosis, vascular disease, diabetes, improved brain functions. In short you will begin to harmoniously balance your physical and mental self.

My own experience mirrors these conclusions. I am now 57, and even though I have a chronic inflammatory bowel disorder, I have an equilibrium of health. This is due to my focused training combined with knowledge and motivation to keep my body as fit as I can, for as long as I can. I want to enjoy my latter years, watching my beautiful children grow, develop and mature. I have been very lucky to coach some wonderful athletes and share the lifters’ journey, knowing I have been instrumental in helping them achieve their success. Working with elite athletes is easy, as they are motivated individuals who want to succeed, you just need to guide them. In contrast, coaching people who have mental health issues or are out of shape, over 50, 60, or 70, is a very challenging, but extremely rewarding. When an individual you coached has improved their physique, stamina, appetite, mental well-being and, equally as important their confidence, it is a truly gratifying experience.

So, nothing is stopping you but yourself. Be brave, make the change in your lifestyle which will change you as a man . . . you’ll become a better version of you.

Good luck and enjoy the odyssey.

About Mike

Mike has been a keen Olympic weightlifter for more years than he would care to mention. Before retiring, Mike won many competitions including medals in the English Championships. His achievements made all the more impressive by the chronic illness he has battled for most of his adult life. Mike is now Head Coach at one of the leading Olympic clubs in the UK and has coached many national and international lifters to great success. Mike spends much of his time working with individuals who have mental health issues. He has improved the lives of many people ignored by other sports.