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Strength Training

The right kind of exercise counters muscle loss as people age

After you hit 50 or so, especially if you're a couch potato, you start losing muscle tissue at an accelerated rate of about half a pound a year. But the right kind of exercise can make all the difference, a team of researchers reports in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. After analyzing scientific literature on the topic, the researchers concluded strength training can reverse age-related muscle loss.

See also: Strength training improves brain health.

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Lifting weights is just one method of strength training. — Darryl Leniuk/Getty Images

For the 1,328 adults ages 50 to 90 in the studies, about 20 weeks of resistance training with weights and exercise machines produced an average of nearly 2.5 pounds of lean body mass, primarily muscle. "People can do more than they think they can," barring underlying heart or bone problems, says Mark D. Peterson, an exercise physiologist with the University of Michigan and the study's lead author. Peterson adds that the earlier people start strength training, the better. They should gradually increase the intensity and number of workouts to optimize improvement in muscle and strength. "The rewards are tremendous — much better mobility and quality of life as you get older," he says.

This study adds to a growing body of research on the benefits of strength training for older people, which reduces diabetes and osteoporosis risk, improves brain power and helps prevent falls.

"Losing lean body mass and strength can lead to significant health problems, including disability and loss of independence," says James E. Graves, dean of the College of Health at the University of Utah, who was not involved in this investigation. "This is very encouraging news because it shows you can do something to help yourself stay strong and agile." But be cautious, he warns. "It's best to work with a trainer who can design a safe and appropriate program that works for you."

Strength training doesn't just mean lifting weights. Resistance bands and Pilates increase muscle strength as well, Peterson says.

Joan Rattner Heilman writes about health and consumer issues.

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