There is a common perception in Western society that once people reach a certain age they are no longer eligible to be strong, fit or agile. You have definitely heard some variation of these statements about age and athletic ability: "I'm too old to lift weights."
"I did a bit of bodybuilding back when I was younger but those days are behind me."
"I'd love to start exercising but I don't want to hurt my back."
It seems we reach a predetermined age or life-event and decide that's it for our youth and athleticism. For some people it is when they turn 40, for some it is when they get married, and for some it is actually once they stop playing high school sport. So many people in our society have effectively given up on themselves physically, consigning themselves to their current level of health and fitness, content that their strength, mobility and fitness will apparently decline as they age further because that is simply how things go. The truth is, all these people are wrong.
There is no age at which you must stop lifting, running and moving athletically. There is no age where your muscles magically begin deteriorating. There is no moment in time when you transition from an athlete to a former-athlete, except in your mind. The human body is a remarkably adaptable specimen, capable of developing strength and power, improving mobility, increasing fitness, and improving quality of life at any age. The most common misconceptions around strength training and older adults often come from a misunderstanding of basic human anatomy and physiology.
Take the common understanding that a person loses muscle as they age. This is physically true, but is very much misunderstood. Muscle strength loss is indeed something that middle-aged and older adults will face, with approximately 3% of muscle strength lost per year. However, this is merely a 3% loss of your CURRENT muscle strength per year, and does not mean that the principles of strength development no longer apply to you. Let's look at this in a little more depth. If Tim is 50 years old and capable of lifting 100kg (the exercise doesn't matter for this example), in 1 year Tim will theoretically be able to lift only 97kg, with a further 3% reduction in capability every year. However, what do you think will happen if Tim is engaging in regular strength training multiple times each week? If Tim is performing this exercise with the principles of progressive overload and sound lifting technique, do you think he will still see a reduction of 3kg in capability? Of course not.
If Tim begins strength training regularly, even at the age of 50, his strength will be significantly greater than if he were not training, just as it would be for a 25-year-old who begun strength training and found themselves stronger than they were before. Now, Tim might not gain strength quite as rapidly as when he was younger, but he will definitely be lifting more than the 97kg he was in our example exercise. By subjecting his body to the stimulus needed to gain strength and muscle mass, he will effectively counteract the effects of aging on muscle-loss. Let's say Tim has been training his strength to the point that he can lift 120kg. That 3% loss of strength brings him back to 116kg, which is still 19kg stronger than he would have been had he not been training. Taking this even further, if he continues to train his strength throughout the rest of his life he will be able to outlift his 50-year-old self when he is 70 or even 80 years old.
A 3% annual loss of strength due to age does not mean you should neglect a potential 20% increase in strength due to training.
Your age does not mean you cannot gain strength. Being an older lifter does mean that you might have a slightly lower ceiling than if you were younger, but if you haven not taken your ability anywhere near that ceiling then why would you use that as an excuse to not improve?
The same can be said for any athletic ability, such as mobility. The ability to move your joints through a full range of motion with control is a vital component to comfortable and healthy living, but mobility is another ability that people often leave in their 'younger days'. Older adults may find it more difficult to improve their mobility and range of motions, especially in the early stages, but much of the time this is simply because their muscle imbalances and dysfunctions have been ingrained over a much longer time period than those of a younger person.
Of course they are going to take more time to correct.
Of course there will be some modifications that need to be made due to injury and personal circumstances.
And of course there will be improvement to mobility and quality of life if enough time and correctly-applied effort is given.
A heavily-trained 30-year-old is going to be stronger than a heavily-trained 80-year-old. That is a simple fact that I am not denying. There is a proven physical loss of strength as we age and that is undeniable.
But to not push ourselves to be stronger by using that as an excuse is madness. At any age, you can get stronger. At any age, you can be more mobile. At any age, you can have more freedom and quality of life. And though your potential for strength declines slowly as you age, why would you not want to be pushing the limits of that potential? If you have the potential to be fit, strong and healthy right into your golden years, why would you let yourself be held back by the fact you won't be as strong as you might have been at 25 years old?
There are always going to be people with different circumstances, injuries, illnesses and conditions that must be cared for and treated appropriately, and if that is the case for you then I urge you to do so. But for everyone else with an interest in improving their strength and fitness but who has been finding reasons not to, have a genuine look at those reasons.