Exploring Retirement


Welcome to the seventh edition of Exploring Retirement! Each month we hope to provide articles on well-being in retirement and also feature an activity to explore.

This month in our discussion of a retirement lifestyle that can promote good heath and longevity we are looking at how we can maintain our physical strength as we grow older. Frailty is such an accepted part of growing older that the terms "old" and "frail" are often coupled together, as though one was the cause of the other. As this article aims to show, this need not be the case.

The scariest thing I have ever read on growing older, is that the average 75 year old man uses half his available strength taking a shower! Statements like this highlight the danger of using terms like "average". Average should not be taken to imply an expected norm. Frailty is only "normal" for people who accept weakness as an inevitable consequence of ageing. The frailty associated with ageing can and should be avoided or at least postponed for many years and we need to learn how to go about it. Our featured activity this month is resistance training to maintain muscle mass. Our guest contributor, Michael McSorley writes about his own fitness regime in an article which highlights some of the less obvious advantages of an active lifestyle, including making friends with others who share his passion.

Feedback from readers is welcomed, whether you want to add your thoughts on maintaining your physical strength as you grow older or to share your experience of an activity you believe has kept you in shape since you retired. Write to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

Feedback from our readers

Michael McSorley's article in the June issue reminds me of a conversation I had at a party with a professor of Public Health at Cambridge University. Her team carries out research into healthy ageing and dementia. Her 3 top tips for the retired are to keep fit, by doing exercise you enjoy, to keep your brain active by learning something new and to mix with young people. I can't add anything to that! Isabel


The term "sarcopenia" derives from two Greek words, "sarco" meaning the body and "penia" meaning reduction or loss. It was coined to describe the loss of muscle in the body associated with ageing. It is an unfortunate fact that as we age we tend to lose muscle and gain fat. We may look much the same and even weigh much the same, but our body composition has changed. Because this change is very gradual and because we look much as usual, we tend not to notice the difference until we are required to exert ourselves, only to find we have become noticeably weaker.

Sarcopenia was introduced in a book entitled Biomarkers by Professor Irwin Rosenberg and Dr William Evans. A biomarker refers to biological predictors of health. Rosenberg and Evans focussed on those biomarkers of ageing which are amenable to lifestyle change. In particular they listed 10 biomarkers which can be improved by engaging in vigorous exercise, even in very old people. These are -

  1. Muscle mass
  2. Strength
  3. Metabolic rate
  4. Body fat
  5. Aerobic capacity
  6. Blood sugar tolerance
  7. Cholesterol
  8. Blood pressure
  9. Bone density
  10. Temperature regulation

The good news about sarcopenia, is that it can be reversed. We don't have to grow weak and frail as we age - and the even better news is that there appears to be no upper age limit to regaining strength and fitness. For many people reading this article, this may seem incredible, but it has been demonstrated time after time in scientific studies, including men and women in their 70's, 80's and even 90's!

Please note I am not advocating body building! What we are after is regaining some of the muscle we had when we were young adults. With this gain in muscle comes a significant increase in strength, allowing you to lift your grandchildren, among other things! Muscle is biologically much more "active" than fat so you will burn more calories even while sitting still, which is good news for anyone trying to lose weight. Aerobic exercise will strengthen your lungs and larger muscles will improve your ability to stabilise your blood sugar, helping to ward off diabetes. Exercise will also increase the amount of high density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) in your blood which helps protect your arteries. Again having more muscle requires an increased supply of capillaries which can lower your resulting blood pressure. The exertion needed to restore your muscle density can also send a signal to your bones to regain some of the calcium you may have lost to osteoporosis and finally, a more muscular body copes better with your internal temperature regulation. Quite an impressive package!

During my Churchill Fellowship in 2007, I spent a week in Boston where I was fortunate to meet Professor Rosenberg, who was Director of the Human Nutrition and Neurocognition Laboratory at Tufts University. He told me about a number of published studies linking increases in the amount of muscle to a lower incidence of Alzheimer's Disease. Professor Rosenberg also believes that there is a link between muscle mass and a strengthened immune system, which should help reduce the incidence of various cancers associated with ageing.

One last thought on the importance of maintaining our musculature - there are two main types of muscle in the body, called "fast twitch" and "slow twitch" fibres respectively. As we grow older we tend to lose more of the fast twitch variety than we do of the slow twitch, which explains why older people are often very slow moving. There is more good news however - resistance training tends to restore the fast twitch fibres - which means we don't have to accept growing slower as an inevitable consequent of growing older.

Featured Activity

Resistance Training

The first question to settle is "do I need to go to a gym?" The short answer is no, but it may be the quickest way to begin recovering your strength and vigour. As I stated last month when discussing aerobic exercise, if you go more gently, you will have to go for longer! Using weights to rebuild your muscles is probably the quickest way to achieve noticeable results. However, any vigorous exercise will have the desired effect.

There are many ways to get the training effect you need and it is up to you to find the kind that suits you best. It is important to find a form of exercise that you enjoy and will want to keep on doing. Most public leisure centres have a "fitness suite" and offer reduced membership to older people. You can also exercise at home, using improvised weights, if gym membership is too expensive. Professor Irwin Rosenberg, who coined the term "sarcopenia", goes hill walking and canoeing!

The basic principle for promoting muscle growth is called "progressive overload", i.e. as we get fitter we need to set ourselves progressively harder exercises so our bodies get the message that they need to become stronger. Eventually, of course, you will reach your natural limit, but probably not for some time! It sounds challenging and it is, but in reality it is not that difficult and you will find your increasing strength can be very empowering.

For years there has been an ongoing debate as to what form of exercise is most effective at building muscle, Some people advocate lifting very heavy weights a few times while others recommend lifting lighter weights more often. The latest research findings conclude that it doesn't matter which approach you take, what matters is that you exercise the muscle until it is too tired to exercise any more. It is this which signals the body to promote new muscle growth.

As in just about anything in life, it is possible to overdo it and anyone taking up resistance training, at any age, should consult their doctor if they have a medical condition. When you get the go ahead and if you do decide to join a gym, please seek informed advice on the proper way to perform resistance exercises. Your aim is to rebuild the muscle you have lost, not to injure yourself in the process!

An important aspect of promoting muscle growth which is often not well understood, is the need for rest. Muscle actually grows during the period following exercise so you should allow a few days after each exercise session for your body to recover.

Recommended reading: Biomarkers by Irwin H. Rosenberg, MD and William Evans, PhD.

To watch an inspirational video showing what is possible, take a look at this eighty six year old gymnast!