“You don't stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.”
― Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

There are all kinds of unnatural fictions associated with aging in our sedentary culture. Human bodies age more quickly and become infirm more rapidly when sedentary. With higher rates of morbidity at younger ages, we come to presume that seniors cannot or should not train at higher intensities, either for cardiovascular or strength training. 

The BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine published the findings of the Live Active Successful Aging (LISA) study at a hospital in Denmark in May 2024: Heavy resistance training at retirement age induces 4-year lasting beneficial effects in muscle strength: a long-term follow-up of an RCT. Randomized controlled trials are the gold standard in research. The study segregated subjects into three groups: a heavy resistance training (HRT) group, a moderate-intensity training (MRT) group, and a non-exercising control group (CON). At the beginning of the study, the average age of the subjects was 66.4 ± 2.5 years. Before applying the training intervention, researchers took baseline measurements of power, isometric leg strength, lean body mass, visceral fat, and muscle cross-sectional area. The intervention lasted one year and consisted of 3 sets of 6–12 repetitions at ~70%–85% of 1
repetition maximum (RM) for all exercises three times a week at a gym for the HRT group.  The MRT group worked out three times a week, once in a hospital and twice at home, using a circuit training style using body weight and resistance band exercises. The control group was advised on healthy living but did not exercise. Notably, the exercise protocol for the HRT group is consistent with younger athletes training for strength or size at any age. 

Two and four years after the intervention, researchers performed follow-up examinations for the measured variables. Notably, since the HRT group started at higher fitness levels for all variables at the cessation of the intervention, they showed no drop in isometric strength or lean body mass from baseline levels four years later, unlike the MIT and CON groups. All groups gained in visceral fat. The study demonstrates that resistance training increases strength in seniors, and heavy resistance training with weights is more effective than bands and body weight movements. The study also shows that a single year of heavy resistance training increases strength, nulling the effects of subsequent deconditioning and aging for three years.

The crucial takeaways from this study are:

  1. Higher-intensity resistance training, as measured by the percentage of one repetition maximum, provides greater strength gains in seniors and younger athletes than medium-intensity training or the controls. 
  2. The strength benefits of resistance training are present as many as three years after cessation of training.
  3. Advice to healthy seniors to curtail resistance training is counterproductive.

See also: Taking It Easy in Old Age: Part 2 Running Volume