strength training and aging

Strength training for seniors and the disabled

Most of us probably associate "Strength training" with high school boys and Olympic or professional athletes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, strength training exercises (such as lifting weights, with resistance bands, using body weight as with push-ups, sit ups or pull ups, or yoga) offer wide-ranging benefits for people all ages and physical condition. In fact, it may be middle to older aged men and women and the disabled who benefit most from participating in strength building exercise programs.

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According to the CDC, the risk or severity of many age-related health conditions can be reduced when one participates in strength-building exercise activities at least two days week. And it is best if you try to work all major muscle groups -- legs, back, stomach, chest, arms and shoulders.

The unique health benefits that come from strength training

While jogging, walking, swimming and other aerobic exercises support heart and respiratory health as well as endurance, they don't tend to increase muscle mass and strength, bone density or improved balance and flexibility in the ways we see from strength training exercises.

A few of the health conditions that may respond well to strength training/weight lifting programs include:

  • Arthritis
    A 16-week strength training study conducted by Tufts University found that strength training may be as effective as medications for relieving the pain and disability in older people with severe osteoarthritis in the knees. Studies with patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis have seen similar results.
  • Lessening the frequency and severity of falls
    When an older person falls there is a greater likelihood of breaking bones, suffering a concussion or causing other disabling injuries. Strength training, done properly (focuses on a full range of motion), has been found to help the elderly improve both their balance and flexibility. A New Zealand study suggests that this can lessen the frequency of falls by as much as 40%.
  • Osteoporosis
    After menopause, women may experience a 1-2% loss in their bone density each year. In addition, the bone quality also decreases. According to a 1994 study of women between the ages of 50 and 70, strength training may do more than just lessen or halt this condition. It can actually reverse bone loss which lessens the risk of fractures.
  • Obesity and Heart Disease
    As we age, we naturally tend to lose not only muscle mass but the quality and composition of our muscles actually changes as well so that existing muscle becomes weaker. This condition, called Sarcopenia, can 1) leads to frailty which by itself my cause one to become more sedentary (which is a leading cause of obesity) but it also 2) effects how efficient our bodies are at converting calories into energy. That is - the more muscle mass we have, the higher our metabolic rate (both when we are active and at rest) and the less likely we are to gain excess weight. In addition, obese individuals tend to secrete less growth hormone which further compromises muscle strength -- so that weight gain becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. And to make matters even worse, excess body weight puts us at an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Diabetes
    As strength training builds muscles and helps us to control our weight, it also improves insulin sensitivity and the body's ability to control blood sugar levels.
  • Depression
    When people participate in strength training programs, researchers have noted that their self-esteem and self-confidence tend to improve -- though they are not certain whether improved mental health is a direct result of the exercise or a side benefit of participants feeling better about their bodies. For some people suffering from depression, strength training may offer improvements similar to those of anti-depressant medications.
  • Sleep Quality and Duration
    Strength training, as well as aerobic exercises, have been found to help people fall asleep more quickly, sleep longer and wake more rested. One study suggests that this may be especially true amongst females, those who are low fit and/or older people. Sleep benefits may also be greatest when exercise is performed earlier in the day.

Strength training tips

  • Strength training need not be complicated. Try to perform each exercise (such as knee bends, sit ups, bench press with weights, etc.), for 8-12 repetitions (one full movement up and down) without stopping; When this number of repetitions becomes too easy, consider using an elastic band or adding weights to increase resistance.
  • In the beginning, a single set (8-12 repetitions) of each exercise may be sufficient to provide you with a safe workout while preventing soreness a day or two later. As you become more comfortable with your strength training program, however, consider increasing this to 2 or 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions each, while resting a minute or two between sets of each exercise.
  • Concentrate on performing smooth (no jerky movements), controlled motions (both up and down) and working through a full range of motion.
  • In order for muscles to recover fully and become stronger, it is best to avoid working the same muscle groups on consecutive days -- but rather wait a day or two before strength training workouts that target the same muscle groups.
  • MOST IMPORTANT: Focus on safety and avoiding injury. For both safety and fun, find a workout partner, if possible. Do not try to push yourself beyond your capabilities. As muscles become active after months or years of little activity, they are likely to become sore when you first begin a workout program. If this happens, make your next workout (a day or two later) less demanding but -- assuming you are in sound basic heath -- it is best to stick with your program schedule. The aches and pains should subside within 1-2 weeks. If you have concerns on whether you are fit enough to be undertaking a strength building program, check with your doctor.
  • Stop exercising if you experience:
    • shortness of breath
    • nausea or vomiting
    • lightheadedness or dizziness
    • chest pain or pressure that spreads to upper back, neck, upper stomach, jaw or arms

For lots more information on strength training and benefits it may provide for seniors, visit:
Why Strength Training?
Healthwise for Life, A Medical Self-Care Guide for You available from the Department of Veterans Affairs

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