Weight of the world: To live longer and be fitter in old age, lift things

It would appear senior fitness fans get great physical and social benefit from regular strength training

If you want to live longer, start pumping iron.

A new study published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on Tuesday found that older adults who do both weight training and aerobic exercise may live longer.

That’s validation for Bernie Geoghegan (66) of Castleknock, a gym enthusiast who attends spinning, aerobics, circuit training and Pilates classes weekly at Fitbug Fitness Studio in Blanchardstown. Although Ms Geoghegan has osteoarthritis in the spine and osteoporosis, she credits the instructors with helping her find modifications or alternative exercises.

“It’s a great sense of achievement every time I do a class. I think if you’re feeling good emotionally and psychologically then it really helps physically as everything is interconnected,” she said. “Once you’re moving, you feel alive and that’s very important when you’re getting older.”


Although it has been well-established that aerobic exercise lowers the risk of death, it has been unclear if strength training offered similar benefits.

To identify the gaps, researchers studied the impact of weight training and aerobic activity on the mortality rate of older adults. More than 100,000 participants, with an average age of 71, answered questions about the frequency and duration of their physical activity over one year.

The study found that respondents who only lifted weights had a 9 to 22 per cent lower risk of death than those who did not exercise. Meanwhile, those who only engaged in aerobic activity fared slightly better with a 24 to 34 per cent lower mortality rate.

The biggest benefit was seen with participants who combined strength training and cardio exercise. Weight training once or twice a week, plus 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, lowered the risk of death by 41-47 per cent.

‘Much healthier’

Taking education, smoking, BMI, race and ethnicity into account did not significantly change results.

John O’Brien (66), of Blanchardstown, began doing circuit classes three years ago. The 40-minute classes include a bit of everything – weight training, cardio exercise, calisthenics and push-ups.

“I feel much healthier. After coming here on Mondays and Fridays, I feel invigorated,” said John. “I’ve never had as good muscle definition on my arms. I recently went to a heart specialist for a check-up, and he’s amazed at what good physical condition I’m in for a man in his 60s, so that kind of brought home how good this is.”

Ireland’s national guidelines on physical activity recommend adults engage in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both.

A couple of years ago, John convinced his brother David O’Brien (63) of Raheny to join the gym. David hadn’t been working out and admitted the first few classes were tough.

“I had got to the stage where I was buying slip-on shoes because I couldn’t bend down to tie my laces,” he said.

Soon he felt more energetic and resilient. “It’s not going turn you into a bodybuilder or a super endurance athlete, but you’re back using muscles that you used previously that for one reason or another you haven’t been using over the years.”

Lifting weights doesn’t necessarily build bulk and can make the body leaner. Total lean mass is associated with a lower risk of death.

Exercise routine

And that is the goal, said David – to prolong his life. “I don’t want to stumble forward and fall into the arms of the Grim Reaper. I want to run up to him and tackle him.”

Researchers concluded that older adults would benefit from incorporating both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities into their exercise routine.

Although the study focused on weight training, other exercises including calisthenics, Pilates and plyometrics, that strengthen the muscles, are also effective.

Strength training was recommended to Irene Corrigan (63), of Clonsilla, to decrease the symptoms of her fibromyalgia.

“Once I started doing weight-resistance exercises, my strength increased and improved, and I found myself having a lot more energy. I was able to do things that I couldn’t do before.”

Ms Corrigan trains at Fitbug, two to three times per week.

Eoin Halligan and Sinéad Mulvey opened Fitbug Fitness Studio five years ago, initially offering Zumba and senior dance classes before expanding to include Pilates, spinning and circuit training. When strength classes were introduced, many older women baulked, claiming they couldn’t lift weights.

‘Remain independent’

“I went over and picked up one of the women’s handbags and asked her, how heavy do you think this bag is?” said Mr Halligan. Once the women realised they were already lifting a few kilos by carrying their purse or a bag of groceries, they reconsidered strength training.

“Lifting weights is important because it allows older adults to remain independent for as long as possible,” he added.

After Rita Coyne’s husband of 52 years died last December, the 74-year-old Castleknock resident was heartbroken and lonely. In May, friends convinced her to begin taking aerobics and Zumba classes.

A few months ago, Ms Coyne said she couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded. “Now, I have so much more energy. I can’t believe I can run up and down the stairs and I can run a 10k. Slowly.”

She plans to add a circuit class to her workout regime in the near future.

Ms Coyne considers the camaraderie to be the highlight of her gym routine. Workouts are followed by coffee at a nearby cafe. The women have started a book club and a knitting club. “I would be lost without this place,” she said.

Researchers agree. They found that the social support of the gym environment is also associated with a longer, healthier life.