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Importance of strength training for older people

Updated on July 13, 2013

Strength and muscle power are very important in old age as old people have to perform activities of daily living such as carrying groceries, getting out of a chair, taking out the trash, climbing stairs, etc.

Inactive persons can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass per decade after age 30. Even active persons also have some muscle loss. Muscle strength decreases by approximately 15% per decade in the sixth and seventh decade and 30% thereafter. A significant loss of muscle mass and strength occurs in the sixth decade of life, which is more dramatic in women. This can be problematic for women because they have less muscle mass.

Loss of muscle mass, its quality and strength, which is known as age-related sarcopenia, is a degenerative change in the muscles. Sarcopenia is derived from Greek meaning poverty of flesh. Sarcopenia is responsible for occurrence of frailty causing falls and fractures in old age.

The symptoms of sarcopenia include musculoskeletal weakness and loss of stamina, which interfere with physical activity. Reduced physical activity further reduces muscle mass. Sarcopenia is also seen in persons who have been physically quite active throughout life, which shows that there are other factors involved in the development of sarcopenia as mentioned below.

  • A decrease in hormones such as growth hormone, testosterone and insulin like growth factor
  • A decrease in ability of body to synthesize protein
  • A decrease in nerve cells responsible for sending signals from brain to muscle for movement
  • Inadequate intake of calories and/or protein

It has been found that many consequences of sarcopenia are preventable and reversible. Progressive resistance exercises can produce increases in strength and muscle size even in oldest old. For many older persons resistance exercises represent the safest, least expensive means to lose body fat and prevent osteoporosis and frailty.

Strength training is a kind of physical exercise making use of resistance to induce muscular contraction, which builds strength, anabolic endurance and size of skeletal muscles. A regular exercise program of strength training will provide the following benefits to elderly persons—

  • It will build active muscle mass that makes one fitter and stronger.
  • It causes bones to increase their density which will prevent injury and osteoporosis.
  • Only muscles are able to burn fat. Therefore, the more muscles one has the higher the chance of using body fat.
  • The increased muscle mass means higher metabolic rate allowing the body to burn more calories throughout the day and night.
  • It will prevent injuries as the body is more agile and strong.
  • Most of physical pains come from inactivity and incorrect posture. Active muscle mass supports the skeletal structures and relieves body pains.
  • Strength training lowers blood pressure and increases HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) level. Therefore, it will decrease the risk of coronary disease.
  • A consistent strength training program improves the muscle's strength, endurance and overall physical performance, which is helpful in everyday activities in elderly people.
  • Regular strength training improves the body image, physical appearance, balance, flexibility and mobility.
  • A certain amount of visible muscles makes everyone look better, healthier and more energetic.
  • It relieves one from stress and anger, increases confidence, self-esteem, self-worth and raises the mood.
  • Regular strength training has positive effects on the immune system. Being physically active on a high level automatically shifts expectations towards health, nutrition and whole lifestyle.
  • It has been found by researchers that regular strength training can induce growth hormone and testosterone release regardless of age but the elderly response does not equal that of the young.
  • Strength training has been reported to enhance insulin sensitivity and, therefore, helps regulate blood sugar level.

Forming a strength training program for old persons—

Strengthening exercises are both safe and effective for men of all ages including those who are not in perfect health. Elderly people, who have been inactive for some time, should check with their doctor before they start a strength training program. The following basic things are required for a strength training workout at home--

  • A reasonably wide, safe and good area, where workout will be done, should be chosen. Some may like to exercise to music so the space should be selected accordingly. A sturdy chair and a bench are also required which should be placed in the workout space.
  • Wear good shoes and comfortable clothes, preferably made of cotton material, for the exercise.
  • Some pairs of dumbbells (hand-held weights), ankle weights and a few barbells are required in the beginning but as one gets stronger, more heavy weights may be required. Initially, one should begin exercise using body weight only. The minimum purchase should include a set of two dumbbells of the following weights – for women, two, three and five pounds and for men, three, five and eight pounds. The best ankle weights are the adjustable types. These allow adding weights gradually in increments of half pound or full pound. For safety reasons, store the weights in a cupboard or a wooden box.

It is important to find the right balance between exercising conservatively to prevent injury and exercising consistently to increased strength. So many times interruptions such as vacation, illness, family or work demands conspire to prevent you from doing your exercises for a week or two or even longer. If so, restart your routine as quickly as you can. You may not be able to pick up exactly where you left off. Therefore, you may need to decrease your weights a bit. But stay with it and you will make up the loss. The important factors of a good routine are exercise intensity and frequency, which can be adjusted as follows:

  • ACSM (AmericanCollege of Sports Medicine) recommends a repetition range of 10 to 15 repetitions per set for people older than age 50 to 60 years. Elderly persons should workout in light to moderate load range i.e., 40% to 60% of 1RM. More advanced and healthy older persons can perform lower repetition ranges with heavier weights (80% of 1RM or higher) for greater strength gains.
  • Do a set of an exercise of ten repetitions in good form. Rest for 1 to 2 minutes and then repeat for a second set. Reduce the weight if you cannot do it.
  • If you can do a few more repetitions of the exercise in a good form then at your next workout, you should do first set of repetitions with the current weight but the second set with next weight up. For example, you are currently using one-pound dumbbells, use two- or three-pound dumbbells for your second set.
  • Similarly, if you find that you can do more than ten repetitions with this weight, use heavier dumbbells for both sets of repetitions at your next sessions.
  • Perform 8 to 10 exercises of the major muscles of the body – chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, legs and core. One can learn these exercises from an expert coach or a doctor well versed in exercise and fitness. They can also be learnt from the websites of ACSM.
  • Perform exercises at least on two non-consecutive days per week. More frequent training may elicit slightly greater strength gains.
  • Perform exercises through a full range of motion. Elderly trainees should perform exercises in the maximum range of motion that does not cause pain of discomfort.
  • Perform exercises in a controlled manner.
  • Maintain a normal breathing pattern.
  • Exercise with a training partner if possible, who will provide feedback, assistance and motivation.

The above recommendations should be viewed in context of individual’s target goals, physical capacity and training status.

One does not need to belong to the gym to perform strength training but some people find it easier to focus on their workout in a gym setting. As a bonus, the trainer at the local gym can teach how to use the equipment properly to avoid injury. If any move feels wrong, consult the trainer. Depending on health and physical condition, some exercises may not be recommended to the elderly persons.

Bottom line is that there is a commonly prevalent misconception among people that elderly persons should not perform strength training exercises. But as a matter of fact, so many studies have validated the usefulness of strength training for old persons. It is also recommended that those elderly persons, who have been regularly doing aerobic exercise, should include strength training exercises in their schedule on at least two to three non-consecutive days a week.


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