When you hear of someone saying you should do strength training, what do you think of? Is it a bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or maybe a guy in a tank top and sunglasses at the gym grunting hard as he lifts weights with his friend yelling at him?
Most the people I see strength training (or resistance training) are in their 20s or 30s, but I would argue that it is even more important for people 50 and over to do it and continue it throughout the rest of one’s life.
Let’s first discuss what I mean by strength training. It’s not pushing weights until you’re blue in the face trying to get as big as Dwayne Johnson (very few of us have the body type to look like that no matter how much training we do). It’s about working your muscles above and beyond what is normally done in daily activity. Thus, it is relative to a person’s current strength. For someone in their 80s who sits in a chair all day, it can be as simple as repeating leg extensions or getting up and down in the chair a few times before progressing to more advanced activities.
Maintaining one’s strength (or minimizing loss of strength) is of great importance as we age. There is a trend to do less as we age. Much of it is unconscious, but at the same time voluntary. In fact, the general progression of society is against us being active as we age. In most careers, as one progresses, the work becomes more sedentary. We go from an early career of working on the front lines and end up at a desk all day. It’s like we’re promoted to sitting still.
Another example is the one of downsizing a residence from a house to an apartment. Maybe because the kids have moved out, or maybe it’s because they don’t want to deal with the yard work anymore. Fair enough. But going from a house, or townhouse that may be two to three stories high to an apartment that only has one floor results in less daily activity. Think of how many times you go up and down the stairs in a day, 10 times? More? Over a year that’s 3650 flights of stairs you are no longer doing and a lot less activity. I’m not against downsizing per se, it’s just accompanied by a decrease in activity that should then be made up elsewhere.
The problem with declining activity is that it can lead to an ongoing cycle of further declines, loss of independence and ill health. As our activity levels decrease, so does our strength and fitness. This may lead to further declines in activity as common activities become more difficult. Often we think the extra effort needed to do the same task is due to age, when in fact it is due to a lower level of fitness from doing less activity.
If this cycle continues, then even performing general activities of daily living like doing laundry, stocking the pantry, going grocery shopping and washing dishes, will become a challenge and make independent living difficult.
An extreme condition of loss of strength from ageing is referred to as sarcopenia (the loss of muscle size which results in a loss of strength). Sarcopenia occurs in about 10% of adults 65 years and older and may be the result of hormonal and neural changes that occur during ageing, and reductions in activity can also accelerate its occurrence. The good news is that regular activity and exercise can help prevent sarcopenia and is considered one of the better treatments for it.
Other benefits from strength training include improved balance and coordination. Much of the initial gains when strength training come from increased coordination as the ‘shakes’ when lifting fade away. It’s this improvement in coordination that can be helpful in reducing falls and exercise is considered the best way to do that. In addition, strength training can reduce pain from arthritis, improve sleep, strengthen bones and reduce back pain to name a few.
The good news is it doesn’t take much to keep up one’s strength or regain it back, and you don’t need to go to a gym to do it (although you can if you wish). It can be done in your own home. Simple exercises like arm raises with light weights (something like 2-7 lbs is fine, or even soup cans or water bottles) improve upper body strength and make it easier getting those plates down from the kitchen cupboards. There are numerous YouTube videos that you can look up to get ideas and even follow like this one or this one which uses a resistance band.
Even doing a little is good. While many people in the gym do multiple sets (a set is a group of exercises repeated such as doing 10 arm raises) when strength training, the greatest gains in strength come from doing that first set. Doing another set (after a rest) is helpful but it doesn’t double the speed in which you get stronger.
If being social is more of your thing, many community centres and pools offer exercise programs targeted to older adults. Activities like water aerobics are great as the water provides resistance to movement while also provide balance support. This is ideal for people with mobility issues. Of course someone in their 70s can join any adult program but we know that adherence to a program tends to increase when exercising with people of similar age.
It’s also never too late to start. Even people over 90 years of age can benefit. In this study, strength training improved the ability for the participants to get up and out of their chair. For many of us, that may seem like a simple task now, but struggling to get up out of a chair is quite common in later life and substantially limits a person’s independence and quality of life.
For an older adult starting a strength training program, it’s good first to get a sense of your starting point. Do you have any physical limitations or challenges getting activities around the house done that weren’t a problem before? Or are you quite active and want to strengthen up a bit more? This will help guide you in what sort of program to start. Speaking to your doctor can also be of benefit before beginning. If you go to a community gym, ask one of the certified fitness trainers for guidance or even have him/her set you up with a program.
Keep in mind to start slow as sometimes our enthusiasm gets the better of us and we don’t feel it until the next day when our muscles are really sore. Some minor soreness the next day that disappears afterwards is generally okay but not if it is ongoing. If it continues, take a rest.
For most people, a strength program that is followed 2-3 times per week is also good enough. As you get stronger, you may want to increase the weight or do more repetitions or sets. Keep in mind not to progress too quickly as that can lead to more intense muscle soreness. Mix in some aerobic activities like walking, swimming or whatever you enjoy on the other days and you’re all set.
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