Pumping iron may be considered a younger person’s activity, but in fact, maintaining muscle mass as we age is crucial to health and continued independence. That’s why strength-training is an important part of an exercise routine for older adults.
“Our strength affects all other aspects of fitness, including endurance, flexibility, coordination and balance,” says Carla DeGrande, wellness coordinator at Friendship Village Chesterfield. “Without strength, we are unable to perform any of the activities that make us healthy and fit. Without strength, we have difficulty performing daily chores and activities that enable us to be functionally independent. And as we age, we lose lean muscle tissue, which means loss of strength.”
Nursing homes are populated by more than 70 percent of their residents not because of cognitive decline but because of physical deterioration called sarcopenia, which is the age-related loss of muscle mass, explains Jessica Phillips, operations manager at The Exercise Coach. “Strength-training is the only thing that can prevent this from occurring,” she says. “Add in the fact that strength-training can also improve your cardiovascular, neurological and skeletal systems, as well as protect against heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, and it becomes not just important but imperative.”
The benefits of strength-training for older adults include stronger muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments; reduction in the negative effects of osteoporosis; improved coordination, motor skills, balance and range of motion; reduction in low-back and arthritis pain; a higher metabolic rate; improved cardiac and respiratory function as chest muscles strengthen; better digestion; and an improved immune system.
As appealing as this may sound, many older adults are justifiably concerned about injuring themselves by lifting weights. “The best possible scenario is enlisting the help of a personal trainer or a group class led by a certified fitness instructor,” advises Carrie Montrey, assistant executive director for The Gatesworth. “And many older adults find it helpful to consult their physician before beginning a new fitness regime.”
In most cases, strength-training programs can be tailored for an individual’s physical capabilities and with his or her medical issues in mind. “I have never known of one doctor who did not approve starting an exercise program,” DeGrande says. “It’s worth the investment to learn proper form by hiring a nationally certified personal trainer who specializes in senior fitness.” Seniors who live outside of a retirement community or care setting may find qualified trainers at local gyms or community centers.
For instance, Phillips uses a method known as ‘Right-Intensity Training.’ “It’s just our way of explaining that no matter the age or health of our clients, we are able to leverage our technology and system to ask for just the right amount of effort to stimulate positive adaptations,” she says. “In the case of people with health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, we strongly encourage those clients to take part in our ‘Metabolic Comeback.’ This is a 30-day nutrition and exercise program that has had remarkable success lowering blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and body fat.”
DeGrande suggests that most older adults can begin with exercises using three- or five-pound dumbbells two or three times per week. And Phillips adds the most important thing is that there's a difference between activity and exercise. “Exercise is about forcing the body to make a positive adaptation, and strength-training is the crucial element.”