Strength training is incredibly important as we age, but often overlooked. Consistent strength training helps us prevent injury, thrive and stay active well into our later years. In fact, if you’re 65 and older, it’s recommended that you include two 30-minute-long strength training sessions every week into your exercise regime. That’s in addition to at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. It may sound daunting, but there are simple ways to get motivated and make strength training — such as resistance band use — a regular part of your fitness routine.
We spoke with Fitness Coach Karina Inkster, a Certified Personal Training Specialist with a Master’s degree in Gerontology, and asked for her advice. What if you haven’t exercised in ages? How do you get started? And what are the best strength-training tips or routines for those over 50?
Q&A with Karina Inkster
Q: Why is strength training so important for older adults?
A: Strength training is absolutely important as we get older. Adopting a strength training regime is one of the best ways to make sure that we function well, prevent injury, and live independently well into old age. We naturally lose muscle mass and bone density as we age — it’s a totally normal and natural process. Strength training is the best way to slow down this process. It’s pretty much the closest we can get to the so-called “fountain of youth.”
Here’s a pretty drastic and specific example of just how important strength training is in later life. There’s a lot of research that shows that muscle strength, especially in the legs, is predictive of falls in later life and we know that up to 20% of falls in later life lead to death. The good news is, you can start strength training at any age — it’s never too late.
According to Canadian and American research-based recommendations, older adults should strength train at a moderate to high intensity a minimum of twice per week, using all of the major muscle groups every time. That’s just the minimum though. More physical activity provides greater health benefits, so what I do with my older clients is get them to strength train a minimum of three days per week, and four if they can make it work. Each session is between half an hour and an hour.
Q: Tell us about healthy aging. You have a gerontology degree, among many other accreditations. What do you think is the key to healthy living after 50? And why do so many people struggle?
A: While there’s no single key to successful and healthy aging, there are several factors that come pretty close, and one of those is, no surprise, regular exercise.
There are a lot of other really important factors for healthy aging that are pretty intuitive, but they’re also very much supported by research. Things like feeling socially connected and finding meaning in your life. Then of course, eating a nutrient-dense diet, which usually means lots of plant-based foods.
One major reason that so many people seem to struggle is because our society is not yet set up to promote healthy eating and active living by default. We have sedentary jobs and sedentary hobbies, and our communities aren’t always walkable, so people who eat well and are regularly active are still outliers.
In some cases, depending on your social circle, you might need to be a lone wolf who acts and eats differently from everyone else in order to stick to your fitness goals and maintain your health. It might take more effort to find a social support system, but it’s worth the effort.
Q: You’re vegan. How do you debunk the myths out there about being vegan, getting enough protein and staying strong?
A: I think that strength training and eating a vegan diet actually go hand in hand. While we need more research on this, preliminary evidence and some expert opinions do show that vegans may actually recover faster from their workouts than non-vegans.
When I wrote my book,Vegan Vitality, I interviewed Susan Levin, Director of Nutrition Education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She says that there are several theories as to why a vegan diet might be a performance enhancer for athletes. Training is actually a stressor on the body and its immune function. While it’s a good stressor, it’s one that our body needs to recover from.
A vegan diet is full of fruits, veggies, grains and legumes. A vegan diet provides a clear immune boost because it’s really high in antioxidants and it avoids pro-inflammatory foods. The immune boost could be what allows vegan athletes and strength trainers like me to train and recover in rapid succession.
The other part of that story is that there’s a myth out there that vegans don’t get enough protein or that it’s really difficult for vegans to get quality protein. That myth is slowly dying out, but it still persists unfortunately. We all need to make sure that our diets support our fitness goals. The best way for me to debunk myths about veganism and fitness is to walk my talk. I love making and sharing delicious plant-based food and being a resource for people who want to try a vegan diet.
Q: You’ve written a handful of books. We especially like the title, How to Give a Shit About Your Health. Give us your top three tips if you do give a shit, and want to move successfully into your 50s, 60s, and 70s.
A: In order to truly give a shit about your health, you first need to make your own health a key priority in your life. And you need to take steps towards increasing and maintaining good physical and mental health. My top three tips would be as follows:
1. Have a compelling and motivating “why.”
Having a fundamental reason for why you want to increase and maintain your health is crucial to staying motivated and on track, and it needs to have emotional or intrinsic meaning. It can’t just be something like, “It’s probably good for me, so I’m going to go to the gym.”
A really good example is from an attendee at a talk I gave. His “why” was this: “I want to be vegan and take care of my health so that I can see my grandkids and great grandkids grow up.” That’s a really good emotional reason for wanting to improve your own health. It’s a very personal thing. But you need to find the “why” in order to make putting in the work worth the effort.
2. Make changes to your environment that reinforce healthy habits.
Your environment has a huge effect on your ability to stick to healthy habits. The more bulletproof your environment is, the more likely you’ll reach your health goals.
This involves things like creating a consistent meal prep or meal planning routine, having a regular workout buddy that keeps you accountable or not having treat or snack foods in the house. These are all small tweaks to your environment that add up to reinforce your healthy habits.
3. Do what you love.
You’re much more likely to stick to an active routine over the long term if you find an activity or several activities that you enjoy doing. There’s no reason that you should feel chained to a gym if that’s not your thing. There are lots of other options like racket sports, swimming, tai chi, yoga, etc. Find something you enjoy and that will automatically make you stick to it longer.