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Lifting weights now can help you ace your golden years

The most effective way to keep your bones healthy and your muscles from fading away in old age is to maximize your muscle mass in the years before their onset.

Diego Cervo/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The other day a prospective client – a woman in her mid-30s who runs often but rarely lifts – asked a question I hadn't heard in quite some time. It was a smart question, a question I'm surprised people don't ask more often, and that question went something like this: "I feel good and I like the way I look. Why, exactly, should I care about lifting weights?"

I smiled. I'm the sort who needs to understand the "why" before buying into anything, so right away I knew that the two of us were going to get along. I was also reminded of the famous Seinfeld joke about the absurdity of working out – nobody's really getting in shape for anything; we're working out so we can be in shape for when we have to do our exercises.

When taken only at face value, it's easy to see why weight training is the butt of so many jokes. Along with being viewed as self-indulgent, if not downright narcissistic, there is an inherent absurdity to the act of repeatedly lifting heavy objects over and over again; it's a Sisyphean ordeal in the literal sense of the term, since at no time do you ever reach a real end point. Getting in shape – whatever that means – is simply something you do until you decide to stop or you die.

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So what is the point of this painful, time-consuming business? If the whole "looking good naked" part is evident, what are the not-so-obvious benefits that adults – specifically those of us that are fast approaching middle age – should consider before writing off the endeavour as a fool's game for the young and insecure?

Glad you asked.

It keeps your bones healthy

In the underrated suspense-thriller Unbreakable, Samuel L. Jackson plays a mysterious figure with a congenital disease that causes his bones to shatter like glass at the slightest of impacts. And while it's ostensibly a story about heroes and villains and the duality of humankind, I like to think it's really a long and dramatic public-service announcement about the dangers of osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to lose their density over time, leaving those who are afflicted at high risk for fractures. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, one out of four Canadian women over the age of 50 will suffer an osteoporotic fracture. The stats are slightly better – one in eight – for Canadian men of the same age group. Approximately 30,000 of these incidents are hip fractures, a number that's expected to quadruple by 2030.

For years we've been told that calcium is the key to preventing osteoporosis, this despite the fact that Canadians, per capita, have been drinking an average of 81 litres of milk since 1997. Turns out the real bone-strengthening hero is iron, though we're talking about the kind you lift rather than ingest. Dozens of studies have proven that resistance training not only increases bone density, but also minimizes other risk factors for osteoporosis by improving strength, balance and muscle mass. And here you thought it was milk that does the body good.

It keeps your muscles from wasting away

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Sarcopenia is the fancy medical term for the involuntary loss of muscle tissue that naturally occurs as we age. A sort of cousin to osteoporosis, sarcopenia can begin as early as your 40s, though it's more common in seniors. Once it starts, the downward slope gets steeper each year; it's not uncommon for those in their 80s to have lost as much as 50 per cent of their muscle mass due to this condition.

The impact of sarcopenia can be downright sinister: loss of motor function, rheumatoid arthritis (a chronic and painful inflammation of the joints) and insulin resistance (a common precursor to Type 2 diabetes) are but a few of the effects. Scientists aren't sure what exactly causes this deterioration – a host of issues are believed to be blamed, from cellular dysfunction to low levels of certain hormones – but they all agree on the treatment. As with osteoporosis, resistance training has been proven to not only slow down the onset of sarcopenia, it can actually reverse the effects.

There's a clear commonality in the effects of sarcopenia and osteoporosis: both conditions can reduce one's quality of life as they age by limiting mobility, making everyday tasks painful and potentially dangerous. A strong and muscular body acts as insurance against slips and falls, making our bones more resilient and our movements more stable, meaning we can keep doing the things we love to do for as long as possible.

Of course, the most effective way to combat these ailments of aging is to maximize your muscle mass in the years before their onset, mitigating the inevitable losses that are to come. If you're in your 30s and you haven't started lifting, now's the time.

Super simple at-home body-weight and bands workout

You don't need to commit to an Olympic-style training regimen either. You don't even need a gym – basic body-weight exercises (i.e., push-ups, squats, lunges) combined with resistance band work is all it takes. Here's a program to help get you started:

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Perform all of the required reps before moving on to the next exercise, with as little rest as possible in between. After completing the second exercise in the circuit, rest for 60 seconds, repeat, then move on to the next circuit.

Circuit 1

● Body-weight squats: 10-12 reps

● Resistance-band pull apart: 12-15 reps

Circuit 2

● Stability ball leg curls: 12-15 reps

● Push-ups (drop to your knees if needed): 10-12 reps

Circuit 3

Glute bridges: 12-15 reps

● Single leg lowering: 8-10 reps per leg

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.

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