Why It’s Never Too Late to Start Exercising

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  • A new study finds that even if you’ve never worked out before, you still have the same ability as a world-class athlete to build muscle.
  • But experts caution that a gym novice may want to start off slowly to avoid injury.
  • Additionally, even small amounts of exercise can make a big difference to your health.

When he was 70, Jim Owen realized his successful but sedentary career on Wall Street was impairing his health. That was when Owen, who turns 79 next month, began exercising.

He chronicled his journey as an older person reclaiming his physical fitness in “Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50.”

Now, a new study in the journal Frontiers in Physiology backs up what Owen witnessed firsthand: Even if you’ve never worked out regularly and are older, your body has the same ability to build muscle mass.

Later-in-life fitness

A team at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom compared the ability of men to build muscle mass. They looked at two groups: People older than 60 who exercised at least twice a week for at least 20 years, and those who didn’t have a consistent workout routine.

Participants had a muscle biopsy 48 hours before consuming an isotope tracer drink and conducting a weight training session, then another biopsy after finishing. The drink enabled the researchers to see how proteins were developing within the muscle.

Both groups had equal abilities to build muscle in response to exercise.

“Our study clearly shows that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been a regular exerciser throughout your life: You can still derive benefit from exercise whenever you start,” said lead researcher Leigh Breen, PhD, a lecturer at the university.

“Obviously a long-term commitment to good health and exercise is the best approach to achieve whole-body health, but even starting later on in life will help delay age-related frailty and muscle weakness,” he said.

Although they’re already better off fitnesswise, the avid exercisers’ bodies synthesized protein at the same rate as the untrained individuals when it came to the specific resistance training exercise used, says Joe Masiello, a trainer and co-founder of Focus Personal Training Institute in New York City.

“Physiologically, younger subjects have a greater advantage to building muscle than older subjects,” Masiello said.

Regardless of age, progressive overload is essential to avoid plateau. That means you have to apply adequate stimulus (or exercise stress) and variation consistently to continuously build — and not just maintain — muscle.

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