Strength Training May Be the Fountain of Youth

For those who think getting old means getting frail, David Shirey, exercise specialist with Dynamic Dimensions says, "Think again!"

Strength training shouldn't stop when you retire, he said.  "It's a vital factor in keeping bones strong and healthy, maintaining, and in many cases, improving flexibility, not to mention warding off health concerns."  With benefits like these, the low number of adults pumping iron is surprising.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 12% of people ages 65 - 74 participate in exercise that includes some form of strength training; and for people over the age of 75, the number decreases down to 10%.

Some may shy away from lifting weights for fear they may over-tax their body and cause undo stress.  "While that is something to watch, it shouldn't cause any seniors to avoid strength training," he said.

Researchers with the Medical University of Vienna conducted a study to see if resistance training techniques originally designed for younger people could be adapted to older adults.  They randomly assigned 24 men and women, with an average age of 76, to a training program or a control group.  Training consisted of a cycle of eight exercises, each for a different large-muscle group.  Participants began by completing one cycle a day, twice a week, and added another training cycle every four weeks.  By the end of the study, they were performing two cycles a day on two days a week.

Men and women in the exercise group gained an average of 6.4 pounds of muscle, while losing 8.8 pounds of fat.  Muscle strength increased by 15%, and the ability of muscles to use oxygen rose by 12%.  The researchers concluded that systematic resistance training is highly recommended to reverse the muscle tissue wasting that occurs with aging.

Motivation, or more specifically, the lack of motivation, is often the biggest obstacle to regular exercise, no matter what age range is being discussed.  Most people know they need to exercise regularly, but getting up and doing it is the problem.  One of the keys to getting older adults moving is to have them understand that by doing so, they can maintain their independence in years to come.  Being able to take care of their own hygiene, grooming and housekeeping is important to remaining independent.

Poor balance and flexibility are often the culprits to loss of independence.  Falls and broken bones can sideline even active senior adults, sometimes causing long-term disability.  "Strengthening exercises can significantly increase flexibility and balance," said Shirey.  A New Zealand study of women 80 years of age and older showed a 40% reduction in falls with simple strength and balance training.

Goals often changes during various times of life.  In one's 20's, keeping the body toned and sleek was the primary goal to attract attention.  As people move into their 40s and 50s, staying healthy for medical reasons becomes important.  In the 60s and 70s age group, staying independent gives motivation for many to begin or continue a regular exercise program.

In fact, starting regular exercise after the retirement years isn't as uncommon as it used to be.  "It's never too late to begin a fitness program; you're never too old," said Shirey.  "Some people start after they're retired, because they feel they finally have the time.  Others come to us after being diagnosed with diabetes or heart concerns because their physician has recommended that they exercise regularly.  They may start out walking on the track or a treadmill, and then move up to more physically demanding activities, like weight lifting."

Health concerns that often plague older adults can be minimized with strength training, according to Shirey.  "Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and osteoporosis can all improve with regular exercise.  Some people tend to think that they need to be in better health before they can start exercising and lifting weights. It sounds odd to say that, but it's actually a common misconception.  The truth is, people who are not in the best of health often see the benefits more quickly, because their body responds to the lifestyle improvement more readily than someone who is already in good shape."

Researchers with Tufts University studied how older adults with moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis fared in a strength-training program.  Participants reported a 43% decrease in pain as a result of a 16-week program that included strength training.  They also showed increased muscle strength and better physical performance and decreased disability.  The findings showed the effectiveness of strength training to ease the pain of osteoarthritis was just as potent, if not more potent, as medications.

The heart's own health benefits from strength training.  The American Heart Association recommends strength training as a way to reduce risk of heart disease and as a therapy for patients in cardiac rehabilitation programs.

Staying strong becomes more important as the years go by.  "Instead of slowing down, now is the time to make more of an effort to keep moving.  The basic movements of life, such as carrying groceries, lifting a grandchild, getting up from a low sofa, or climbing a few stairs doesn't have to set you back.  Take control of your body and start the process of getting stronger," urged Shirey.

Studies show that many symptoms of old age are really just symptoms of inactivity.  Muscle weakness, bone loss and sluggish metabolism usually accompany aging, but are not solely caused by it.  With a little effort, it's possible to delay or possibly prevent these entirely.