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Lifelong Exercise and Strength Training in Older Adults

January 11th, 2012

Laura McIntyre, Physiotherapist

Maximum strength capacity reaches a peak sometime around the 2nd or 3rd decade of life and by the fifth decade begins a gradual decline. The good news is that 20 weeks of resistance training in older adults can result in a 1 kg increase in lean body mass. This is in contrast to a 0.18 kg annual decline that often occurs with a sedentary lifestyle beyond 50 years of age.Remarkably it is never too late to improve muscle function. Significant strength adaptations have been shown in subjects aged 85 to 97. Procrastination however is not recommended as it is expected that early intervention will translate to better outcomes.

Lifelong intense activity is encouraged. A Canadian study looked at highly trained lifelong (30+ years) runners and compared them to healthy recreationally active young and age-matched controls. They looked at the number of motor units which consist of one nerve together with all the muscle fibers it stimulates. Normally the number of motor units gradually declines with age. The masters runners had a greater number of motor units compared to their age-matched controls and a similar number compared to the young. The authors concluded that lifelong high-intensity physical activity has the potential to limit the loss of motor units associated with natural aging well into the 7th decade of life.

Older athletes are pushing the limits of what was previously thought impossible. At this years Scotiabank Toronto marathon 100 year old Fauja Singh finished the marathon and 80 year old Ed Whitlock finished in an astonishing 3:15. For most sports there is a well-maintained but declining sports performance well into the 60’s years of age. Rowing has shown well-maintained performances into the 70’s.

The view that at an advanced age, load-bearing intensity should be reduced in order to avoid injuries and chronic overuse is widespread and not supported by recent evidence. Healthy aging adults should be capable of safe participation. The risk of side effects is very low if the dose is adapted to the client. However, adults who are pregnant, frail, have a disability or a medical condition should consult a health professional to understand the types or amounts of physical activity appropriate for them based on their exercise capacity and specific health risks or limitations.

As is generally accepted for novice trainers of any age, resistance exercises should initially include a period of low volume and low intensity before gradually progressing over time. Once familiar with resistance exercises a classic training program consists of 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions at an intensity of 70 to 80% of a maximum lift where the maximum lift can be assumed. A selection of 8 to 10 exercises performed on 2 non-consecutive days per week is recommended. Optimal training in older adults is fundamentally similar to optimal training in younger adults.

Older adults may need more recovery days and reduced frequency of either high volume or high intensity training. Cross training might be particularly useful for the recovery days.

Lifelong exercise has many benefits. Get out there and enjoy your training.


Baker AB, Tang YQ. Aging Performance for Masters Records in Athletics, Swimming, Rowing, Cycling, Triathlon, and Weightlifting. Experimental Aging Research. 2010;36(4):453-477.

Booth FW, Zwetsloot KA. Basic concepts about genes, inactivity and aging. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010;20(1):1-4.

Faulkner JA, Davis CS, Mendias CL, Brooks SV. The Aging of Elite Male Athletes: Age-Related Changes in Performance and Skeletal Muscle Structure and Function. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 2008;18(6):501-507.

Foster C, Wright G, Battista RA, Porcari JP. Training in the Aging Athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2007;6(3):200-206.

Mayer F, Scharhag-Rosenberger F, Carlsohn A, Cassel M, Muller S, Scharhag J.The Intensity and Effects of Strength Training in the Elderly. Deutsches Arzteblatt International. 2011;108(21):359-364.

McCrory JL, Salacinski AJ, Hunt SE, Greenspan SL. Thigh Muscle Strength in Senior Athletes and Healthy Controls. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009;23(9);2430-2436.

Peterson MD, Gordon PM. Resistance Exercise for the Aging Adult: Clinical Implications and Prescription Guidelines. The American Journal of Medicine.  2011;124(3):194-198.

Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Sen A, Gordon PM. Resistance exercise for muscular strength in older adults: A meta-analysis. Ageing Research Reviews. 2010;9(3):226-237.

Peterson MD, Sen A, Gordon PM. Influence of Resistance Exercise on Lean Body Mass in Aging Adults: A Meta-Analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43(2):249-258.

Powel AP. Issues Unique to the Masters Athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2005;4(6):335-340.

Power GA, Dalton BH, Behm DG, Vandervoort AA, Doherty TJ, Rice CL. Motor Unit Number Estimates in Masters Runners: Use It or Lose It? Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(9):1644-1650.

Wroblewski AP, Amati F, Smiley MA, Goodpaster B, Wright V. Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in Masters Athletes. The physician and sportsmedicine. 2011;39(3).

7 Responses to “Lifelong Exercise and Strength Training in Older Adults”

  1. A Cyclist says:

    Laura, do you have a reference for the study? I’d like to read the original scientific article, I’m totally intrigued. What journal was it published in, when, and by whom? If you can provide a link to the abstract that would be really great.



  2. A Cyclist says:

    I’m an idiot, really. References are at the bottom! duh.

  3. Vern says:

    Loved this. I work out with a 73 yr old guy that competes in stair climbing races, 12 hour walks, and that is just a fitness nut. I’ll send this to him. Thanks to PJ Glassey for sending me to this page too! ( – cheers all!

  4. [...] Proof is in the Pudding The Fountain of Youth may not be a secret watering hole in Florida where Ponce de Leon famously searched, but this [...]

  5. [...] pretty graphic illustration, from a recent paper by Dr. Vonda Wright and her colleagues (hat tip to Laura McIntyre for the forward), of the importance of lifelong physical [...]

  6. [...] Triathletes just look better! Posted on March 27, 2012 by Dr Ullom To view the original, well referenced blog post look here. [...]

  7. Marissa D says:

    Now, if this does not push the couch potatoes off their butts and start seriously working out I don’t know what will. I work out every day of the week. It’s either swimming, walking or yoga for me. It’s time to start some sort of exercise people. Thanks Laura for sharing this. Much appreciated.

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