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Give Me Strength; Why you need to lift weights

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Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Policy and Science in Boston, continues her discourse on strength training.

Q. Can strength training turn back the clock?

A. Yes, but how much depends on your age. With very old people, we see a 6 percent to 10 percent increase in muscle mass. But they have so little muscle that the actual gain -- a pound and a half or so -- is small. I usually say that the 65-year-old woman who's been strength training and doing some aerobic exercise for a year is biologically much more like a 40-year-old woman who is not doing any prescribed exercise. If the 40-year-old were exercising as much as the 65-year-old, she would be more like the 20-year-old who has been fairly sedentary. So at any age, if you're exercising you're going to be like a younger person who has not been exercising that much.

Q. You said that poor nutrition causes muscle loss. How?

A. About 25 percent of older women are marginally deficient in protein, and some aren't getting enough calories or nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, which is particularly important for muscles. At any age you need enough protein to keep your liver, heart, muscles and all other lean tissues viable and healthy. When you don't get enough protein, you start to lose lean tissue, and you lose skeletal muscle preferentially. That leads to frailty. The first sign is a compromised immune system. People get infections, poor skin, brittle nails, poor hair quality. The body starts shutting down. It's mostly an issue for frail, homebound, older women. They don't eat enough either because it's an economic issue or because they can't get to the supermarket. When you're barely...