Interval training and resistance training: the secret weapons when you’re 50+

This week we continue WYZA’s Ultimate Weight Loss Guide – a three-point plan to help you lose weight if you need to, or maintain your weight and your health long into your later years. (If you missed part one on essential nutrition rules you can find it here.)

So, exercise. It’s something that’s easy to let slide, especially if we have a few extra aches and pains or are feeling our age. However, once you hit 50, it’s perhaps even more important that you’re moving – and doing the right kind of movement – than when you were younger. It’ll help with weight control and, more importantly, assist you with maintaining healthy bones and muscle mass, says Professor Robin Daly, chair of exercise and ageing from the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research at Deakin University.

Hitting 50 can be when men and women can experience the most rapid loss in bone density. “Women in particular might lose 5 to 10 per cent in bone mass during the 5 to 7 years of menopause,” he explains. “This is obviously driven by the loss of estrogen. It’s critical at this time to maintain your calcium and vitamin D levels and keep up the exercise to attenuate the loss. Plus, from 40 to 50 we start to lose our muscle mass and strength and that’s implicated in falls – and if you fall over you’re more likely to get a fracture. So that’s why resistance training is so heavily prescribed for 50 to 60-year-olds.”

Rule 1. Do the right kind of resistance training
Hand weights, exercises which use your body weight, gym machines – all of these can help prevent age-related muscle loss, says Dr Daly. “You can get enormous benefits from going to the gym, especially with a targeted program that focuses not on your biceps but on your hips and spine. And resistance training that’s related to your day-to-day activities – getting out of a chair, climbing stairs, doing exercises when you’re standing up.”

And if you’re trying to lose weight, don’t forget that muscle weighs more than fat. “Weight loss for the over 50s comes with one caveat: it’s typically associated with a loss in muscle mass as well,” says Dr Daly. “Hence, including resistance training as part of a weight loss program is important to prevent this muscle loss. And don’t just focus on the scales – your fat mass might be decreasing but lean tissue mass can increase, too, and that might mean less of a loss on the scale.”

Rule 2. Do training that increases ‘muscle power’
Losing weight can be hard, so being in the best condition possible can only support your efforts. That’s why focusing on good muscle function, balance and gait is also critical, especially as we head towards our late 60s to 70s. “At this age, a lot of people can’t tolerate moderate to high-impact weight-bearing exercises because they have knee or back problems,” says Dr Daly.

“That’s ok. So what we’re trying to do with that age group is maintain muscle function, balance and gait so you don’t slip and fall over. It’s about improving muscle function with balance-type activities, but muscle power, or your ability to produce force quickly, is also very important.” The best way to explain this, he adds, is to recall the feeling when you’re on a tram and it starts off quickly and you have to move your leg to stop yourself from falling over. “That’s muscle power. And a loss in muscle power decreases very rapidly as we get older so it’s important, along with optimising bone density, to also maintain muscle power, someone’s speed of movement. To improve your muscle power, you need to train your muscles to move quickly and this means undertaking lower limb exercises where the pushing or lifting phase is performed rapidly.”

Rule 3. Do high intensity interval training (HIIT)
We know that your metabolic rate drops with age, making it harder to lose weight – but your secret weapon could be high intensity interval training. There’s a great deal of research to indicate that short, sharp bursts of activity are more beneficial for your body and your waistline than longer, steady bouts of exercise. A HIIT workout is around half an hour and includes bouts of ‘high intensity’ exercise – either on a bike or a treadmill. After a warm up, you do several ‘cycles’, which involve a bout of walking or pedalling fast, followed by a slower ‘rest’ period. You then repeat these cycles for about 30 minutes. You don’t have to do it on a machine either – there are lots of ways to incorporate HIIT into your current workouts, even if you’re just walking every day.

It’s not just great for weight loss, either. In an international trial, UQ’s School of Human Movement Studies in Brisbane has also found that people with metabolic syndrome (which is where you have two or more of the following risk factors for heart disease – obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol) can really benefit from HIIT. In the study, a promising number of participants improved their fitness, lost weight and reversed their metabolic syndrome altogether.

“There’s certainly some evidence that HIIT can improve a range of health incomes,” adds Dr Daly. “But if you want to undertake this mode of training – and you’ve been sedentary or have various chronic diseases – then it would be wise to get GP approval first and seek advice from an exercise physiologist who can evaluate your level of risk and prescribe an appropriate program.”

Click here to read Part 3 – Essential tweaks to your environment and routine for long-term weight loss success 

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