How lifting weights thrice a week can help prevent knee pain as you age

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A study published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine has found that lifting heavy weights regularly can significantly maintain leg strength in older adults, even years after the training period. According to a TOI report, the research, conducted on healthy individuals aged 64-75, concluded that one year of heavy resistance training resulted in long-lasting beneficial effects on muscle function.

Importance of Leg Strength

Doctors emphasize the crucial role of leg strength for mobility and independence in older adults. In a TOI report, Dr. Yash Gulati, senior consultant at Apollo Hospital, explained, “Heavy resistance training is particularly beneficial for older adults as it helps maintain muscle mass, bone density, and mobility. It doesn’t necessarily mean lifting extremely heavy, but rather using weights that challenge the individual’s strength and muscle function.”Combating Sarcopenia
Dr. Jayant Arora, senior director at Fortis Gurgaon, noted that as individuals age, they experience sarcopenia, a decline in muscle mass, particularly in the lower limbs. “This significantly impacts their mobility, alters their gait and walking speed, and consequently elevates the risk of falls,” Dr. Arora said. He stressed the importance of preserving muscle strength to improve physical function and quality of life in older adults.

How Heavy Resistance Training Works

Heavy resistance training stimulates muscle growth and strengthens bones. “By stressing the muscles and bones, the body responds by increasing protein network formation and depositing additional minerals, resulting in stronger and more resilient leg muscles and bones,” Dr. Gulati said. The training should be tailored to individual characteristics, including body weight, strength level, and overall fitness.

Starting Heavy Weightlifting Safely
Dr. Rahul Kumar, senior consultant at Paras Health, recommended starting with lighter weights and gradually increasing the load. “The amount of weight used should be enough to fatigue the muscles within 6-12 repetitions while maintaining proper form,” Dr. Kumar advised. He also emphasized the importance of proper guidance to prevent injuries and achieve the best results.

Health Considerations
Before beginning any new exercise program, it is crucial to consider one’s health status. Dr. Biplab Das, director at Narayana Hospital, cautioned, “Individuals with severe osteoporosis, uncontrolled hypertension, certain cardiovascular conditions or joint problems should exercise caution.” A thorough assessment is recommended for those with pre-existing medical conditions to determine the safest exercise plan.

Gender Differences in Training
Dr. Hitesh Bhandari, orthopaedics consultant at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, noted that men generally have more muscle mass and strength initially, allowing them to lift heavier weights. However, “Women can achieve similar relative strength gains with resistance training. Despite the potential difference in the absolute weights used by men and women, the fundamental principles of resistance training remain the same for both genders,” Dr. Bhandari said.

University of Copenhagen Study
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen conducted a study involving 451 participants aged 64-75, who were divided into three groups for a one-year exercise regimen. The first group engaged in heavy weightlifting, lifting 70-85% of their maximum capacity three times a week. The second group performed moderate-intensity exercises with resistance bands, while the third group did less than an hour of strenuous exercise weekly.

Long-Term Benefits

The study followed participants for four years, measuring their physical strength, including leg strength, handgrip strength, and lean leg mass. “We found that if you did one year of resistance training with heavy weights, you were able to maintain the strength in your legs that you had when you began the study,” said Mads Bloch-Ibenfeldt, a medical researcher at the University of Copenhagen.

The heavy weightlifting group maintained their baseline leg strength, while the other groups lost strength over time. This finding underscores the neuromuscular benefits of weight training beyond muscle building. “Neural adaptations influence the response to resistance training,” the authors wrote. Despite some loss in handgrip strength and lean leg mass, the heavy lifting group preserved leg strength, highlighting the long-term benefits.

Why Leg Strength Matters as We Age
Research by the National Institute on Aging indicates that age-related loss of muscle mass and strength, known as sarcopenia, significantly contributes to limited mobility in older age, threatening physical independence. Leg strength, crucial for balance and mobility, is associated with better health outcomes in older adults. Federal guidelines recommend muscle-strengthening activities, including weightlifting, at least two days a week for adults over 65.

(With inputs from TOI)

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