Many older adults have a negative
attitude toward strength training for seniors. Some may remember a time
when lifting weights was seen as being only for body builders and when
athletic coaches strongly discouraged their athletes from lifting weights,
believing it would make them slow, too bulky and inflexible. Many older
Americans are just now becoming aware of how much this attitude has
changed over time.
Currently, a veritable revolutionary sea
change has taken place on this matter. Now Oprah, Diane Sawyer and most of
Hollywood have Personal Trainers and are furiously pumping iron. Coaches
in virtually every sport, whether at the professional or recreational
level, are insisting on the need for resistance and cardiovascular
training as essential for success in competition. From Tiger Woods in
golf, to every football player in the NFL, basketball player in the NBA,
and among tennis, hockey, and players from all other sports, each employs
a professional staff of full time trainers and athletic coaches who do
nothing but design and implement strength training for their teams.
Members of the medical and general health care community have now accepted
and endorsed the value of safe and effective exercise as one of the best
preventative medicines available.
The reasons behind such a change include
the many benefits that such training has now been shown to provide.
Specifically, what are the benefits one can expect from resistance and
cardiovascular training, particularly as this applies to the older
Here, among others, are some benefits
that may be produced by a professionally designed exercise program:
1. reducing the risk of
coronary heart disease and improving post coronary performance.
2. reducing the risk of
metabolic disorders such as diabetes.
3. reducing the risk of
hypertension and its accompanying health threats.
4. improving blood lipids
(cholesterol/triglycerides) and reducing associated risks of unhealthy
5. building and recovering
lost muscle mass and strength.
6. reducing body fat and
improving overall body composition.
7. increasing metabolism to
assist in maintaining a healthy balance.
8. decreasing lower back
pain by strengthening musculature.
9. relieving pain of
arthritis by promoting greater flexibility.
10. preventing osteoporosis by
using weight bearing exercise to create greater bone density.
11. reducing the risk of colon
cancer by promoting rapid transit of body waste through the
12. boosting self confidence,
improving appearance and lessening depression.
Coronary heart disease is the number one
cause of mortality among the older population. Exercise provides a
preventative as well as a rehabilitative approach, when performed under
proper medical guidance and professional direction. Overall, exercise and
sound nutrition help to reduce the risk of all major illnesses.
The percentage of our population who are
65 years old and beyond is growing at a very fast pace. For example, at
the turn of the century, less than 4% of the population in this country
was 65 years of age or older. By 2020 it is expected that one of every
four citizens might be 65 and older. It is by far the fastest growing
segment of our population; indeed within this age group, it is the +85
that is growing at the most rapid pace.
Undeniably, with improvements in medical
technology as well as access to health care, we are living longer and will
continue to do so. The question comes down to this: while we have extended
our LIFE SPAN, are we also increasing our HEALTH SPAN? The answer to that
is not clear. The growing incidence of obesity, among all segments of our
population, suggests that although we have added YEARS to our LIFE, we
have not added active LIFE to our YEARS. The number of older, dependent
residents of nursing homes is on the rise. But this is not set in concrete
and each of us, as we age, has the opportunity to improve the quality of
our lives by improving our health and preserving our independence.
We all love our children and
grandchildren dearly and most of us do not want to find ourselves in a
situation where our health has deteriorated to the point where we
prematurely lose our capability to play, nurture, and maintain independent
living. Currently, when the average American male turns 65, he can expect
to live an additional 11 years and a female, at 65, can expect to live
another 20 years. Just how enjoyable and vigorous those years can be may
depend, in large measure, on how well we take care of ourselves. We invest
time and expense to take good care of our teeth, our general appearance,
hair style, etc. and it only seems logical we should dedicate the same
attention to proper care of our bodies.
If we do not do so but rather fall into
a sedentary lifestyle without exercise, we may face undesirable
consequences. Research shows that much of the so-called "aging
process" has more to do with our lifestyle than merely the chronology
of aging. Aging, in modern analysis, is determined by capacity for
function and not simply by counting years. An older individual who remains
active through a moderate exercise program, has approximately the same
functional strength as a sedentary individual much, much younger. Our peak
strength, among women, generally occurs at about age 20 and in men about
age 30 and remains relatively static until about 40 or 50. At that time,
given a sedentary lifestyle, strength begins to decline at about 15% per
decade between age 50 and 70.
The simple reality is that unless we
exercise our muscles properly, we will lose 5 to 7 pounds of muscle tissue
each decade of adult life. This is further worsened by an equal or greater
gain of fat tissue as our metabolism slows and physical activities
decline. This combination of muscle loss and fat gain can be devastating
over time, leading to impairments and ultimately to loss of function and
to disability. A poor Body Mass Index (relationship between body fat and
lean muscle mass), when combined with other risk factors, increases danger
of serious illness and disease, and directly impacts life expectancy.
It is never too late to launch a
proactive attack on this potential or actual problem. Studies at Stanford
University, conducted at veteran's hospitals among older and
de-conditioned vets, showed that regular moderate exercise can produce
startling improvements in strength, cardiovascular conditioning,
flexibility, balance and body composition. Indeed, the greatest
improvements were seen to take place among the most severely
de-conditioned of the older vets. Changes were both physical as well as
psychological. Improvements in self-confidence, self-image, and functional
capacity all serve to reduce depression and promote a sense of well being.
The senior population can gain
strength at approximately the same rate as younger people. Increases in
strength as much as 40% have been documented via strength training for
persons as old as age 96. Some studies suggest that as little as 3 or 4
months of proper training can reverse as much as 30 years of decline in
So, just what kind of exercise and how
much of it are recommended for benefits? According to the American College
of Sports Medicine (ACSM), training should include workouts of 30 to 60
minutes of moderate exercise, at least twice per week, non-consecutive
days (at least one day of recovery between sessions.)
Exercise of all major muscle groups should be done within a protocol of
approximately 10 to 15 repetitions, 1 or (later) 2 "sets," at a
level of "moderate intensity" (aproximately 70% of the amount of
weight one can lift for a single effort; less for those who are severely
de-conditioned). This routine has been known to produce safe and effective
results when done "progressively" (gradually increasing weight
and modifying the number of repetitions as the individual gets stronger
This is best done under competent
supervision since improper form and excessive intensity can produce injury
and cessation of exercise. Some form of cardiovascular conditioning should
also be incorporated, either within that workout or on alternate days.
This can consist of moderate pace
walking, indoor or outdoor cycling, treadmill, or other cardio work that
gets one's heart rate up to a training level. For otherwise healthy
seniors, a suggested beginning is 5 to 10 minutes at 50% of one's
maximum estimated heart rate, working gradually up to 85%. For a very
de-conditioned or post coronary trainee, some benefit is received even at
40% of capacity and need not go higher than 75% to 80%. Instruction in the
function and use of a heart rate monitor is highly recommended as well as
instruction in one's Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), a subjective
evaluation of just how hard you are working.
A benefit not often recognized is a
reduced threat of falling as ankle joints are stabilized and thigh
musculature is increased. The most common injury among senior walk-ins at
emergency hospitals is hip or knee injury resulting from a fall, often the
consequence of poor balance and loss of leg strength. Competent certified
personal trainers can design safe and effective programs, monitor
performance, track results and adjust the intensity and volume as
What are the risks involved in this form
of exercise? As in all forms of human movement under load, there is some
risk attached to exercise. One should not embark on such a program without
direct consultation with your physician for his approval and possible
input into the program. There are some individuals for whom such exercise
is medically prohibited. Some conditions, including diabetes and coronary
heart disease, may require the physician to conduct a Graded Exercise Test
(GXT) on a treadmill or stationary bicycle, while monitoring blood
pressure, heart rate and carefully observing the trainee’s response.
While a Personal Trainer, if properly prepared, can employ some
sub-Maximal testing to evaluate and assess the prospective
trainee, all Maximal testing should be done under the direct supervision
of a physician as such highly demanding testing does involve some
In conclusion, there is every
common sense reason make a decision to embark upon a journey to health and
fitness and no valid reason not to do so, other than being deemed
medically inadvisable. We make allowances for expenditure of time and
resources to take care of ourselves in other ways and there is even more
reason to do so for this wonderful machine we have been given: our bodies.