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Strong at Any Age

“They said: Strength training at your age? I said: Hold my bowl.”

This ad headline caught my eye as I was flipping through my Sunday morning newspaper. The ad is for Post Great Grains® cereal, and shows a woman holding what looks to be a pretty hefty kettlebell. She has a slight smile, with wrinkles around her mouth and eyes, which are a light blue color that matches her T-shirt. Her gray hair is pulled back into a long braid. I notice a sideline that shows the model’s name and age: Gillian, 64.

Wait, what?!

64 – like, how old I’ll be in 3 years? Is that what I’ll look like then? Is that what I look like NOW? Am I – OLD?!

(Insert eye roll and “OK, Boomer” here.)

I have two issues with this ad: 1) the implication that older adults should not begin strength training (with a side issue of what defines an “older adult”); and 2) that eating Great Grains® is going to help you with your strength training goals.

I have been doing strength training (or resistance training, or weight training, or whatever you want to call it) three times a week for most of my adult life. Early on, I did it for muscle definition; I wanted to look good. Later, I did it to regain my strength after a serious illness. For a while after that, I did it to just maintain my fitness level – same exercises, same amount of weight – because I didn’t have the time or inclination for anything more.

Then I started thinking about getting old, and how I wanted to live during that part of my life. So I shook up my workout, and challenged myself to see what more I could do, if I could get stronger.

Of course, I knew the answer. There has been ample research to show that adults of any age can increase their strength and lean muscle mass through resistance training. My go-to expert for fitness research, Dr. Len Kravitz, has published many articles and research summaries over the years on exercise and older adults; in his writing, he cites one study where muscle strength and muscles mass gains can exceed 30% and 12%, respectively, after two months of resistance training in older men and women. (Read the full article here.)

I don’t know who “they” are, but maybe Gillian needs to hang with a more supportive group.

Now, what about the other claims in the ad? “Real fruit and nuts. Heart-healthy* grains.” That asterisk points you to a disclaimer: “Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and as low as possible in trans fat, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Yes, all true. But how does that fuel Gillian’s strength training session?

Great Grains® ingredients list includes: whole grain wheat, raisins, whole grain rolled oats, dates, brown sugar, wheat flour, malted barley flour, pecans, rice flour, sugar, high oleic vegetable oil (canola or sunflower oil), salt, corn syrup, whey (from milk) and Bht (added to preserve freshness), plus a list of 10 added vitamins and minerals. The nutrition label lists 4g of fat, 135mg of sodium, 41g of carbohydrate (including 13g of sugars) and 4g of protein for a 3/4C serving. Gillian is probably going to eat her cereal with milk, so that will give her some additional protein (8g for a 1C serving), along with some more carbohydrates, which are mostly sugars (12g). (But I doubt she will put a full cup of milk on a 3/4C serving of cereal.)

Gillian is going to need a good balance of protein and “smart” carbs to fuel her workout. During strength training, there is an increase in both protein synthesis (the process in which cells make proteins) and in the breakdown of protein in muscle for at least 24 hours after a workout. Adequate protein is going to help repair exercise-induced damage to the muscle fibers, help them get stronger, and replenish depleted energy stores. Protein helps support our immune system and boosts our metabolism, helping us lose fat and stay lean. And it helps us feel fuller, longer.

Stored carbohydrate (in the form of glycogen) is the predominant fuel source for moderate to high intensity activities. If Gillian wants to keep her energy level up, and continue to get stronger by challenging herself with higher-intensity training (like I did!), she will need to keep replenishing that stored glycogen. But as we know, not all carbohydrates are the same. “Smart Carbs” are carbs that are health-promoting, slow-digesting and nutrient rich. They are full of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients; friendly to your blood sugar, hormones and digestion; and give you long-lasting, slow-burn energy. Not-so-smart carbs are the refined sugary kind.

The best sources for proteins and carbs are whole, minimally processed foods. Most of the protein in Gillian’s cereal probably comes from the rolled oats, pecans, and whey. The carbs are coming partly from the grains, but over 30% of the total carbs are sugars; some are naturally occurring in the dried fruit, but there are 3 different added sugars in there as well. And there is no getting around the fact that cereal is a processed food; it comes in a box, and needs an additive to “preserve freshness”.

Now, Great Grains® cereal is tasty; I used to eat it all the time. And if Gillian used to have a chocolate chip muffin and a 500+ calorie coffee drink for breakfast, she has made a positive change by choosing cereal with fruit and nuts instead. But she’ll need to continue on that path to “a little bit more, a little bit better” to make sure she stays strong and lean as she ages.

Another line in the ad reads: “Getting older = feeling older? Think again.”

I have no issues with that at all.

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