Over the years, many people have asked me if there is such a thing as being too old to exercise. My standard reply is an automatic "No!" "But isn't it dangerous for older people to be lifting weights?" Again, I respond with a resounding "No, it's not dangerous! It's actually the best thing for them." People from every generation can benefit from exercise; in fact, mature people have the most to gain from it. Studies have shown that regular strength training can increase muscle mass by more than one pound per month in the older population. On top of that, resting metabolism has been shown to increase by more than two percent per month. This is a good equation because it realistically reverses some of the degenerative processes that can happen with aging.
As with any age group, exercise for older people involves following some basic fundamental principles in regards to strength training, aerobic exercise, flexibility training, and proper nutrition. Although the latter three are just as important, strength training seems to be the most intimidating, especially if the older adult has never exercised before in this way. Therefore, this article will focus primarily on strength training for seniors.
Like it or not, aging is something we all have to face and go through. It's a natural part of life. However, as we age certain degenerative processes start to take place. Some of these processes are unavoidable, but others are not. If a person remains sedentary throughout their mature years, these problems can be exacerbated. It has been shown that men and women gain about 10 pounds during mid-life years if they remain sedentary. To make matters worse, it has also been shown that more than five pounds of lean body mass is lost every decade of life due to disuse. The usual response is calorie restricted dieting which causes a decline in metabolism. Typically, diets that focus on caloric restriction do not work. About 25% of the weight lost is muscle tissue, which is typically already in short supply in older adults.
As we age, the musculoskeletal system starts to deteriorate. Bone mass is lost and joints start to become weaker which can sometimes lead to osteoporosis. Metabolism slows down and cardiovascular problems such as hypertension and high cholesterol start to increase.
Many of the issues I have just spoken of can be avoided or at least slowed by incorporating regular strength training on a weekly basis. If proper nutrition is followed, then strength training can increase muscle mass leading to an increase in metabolism. With a higher metabolism, more calories can be burned, more food can be consumed, and more energy will be exerted. Strength training can also increase bone mass which will lessen the likelihood of osteoporosis. With regular strength training, resting blood pressure can be lowered even in those with hypertension. High cholesterol levels are also lowered making the older adult much more heart healthy. Another benefit of strength training is enhanced glucose metabolism which reduces the risk for diabetes. Since older adults are at a higher risk for certain cardiovascular problems, it is always a good idea that they get their physician's approval before they start a strength training program.
With an increase in metabolism and muscle mass, the likely result will be reduction in body fat. No matter what anybody says, older people can get in shape and improve their physique, just like younger folks, even if they have been sedentary their whole lives. With this new improved aesthetic look and a measurable increase in energy, strength training has great psychological benefits as well. It has been clearly shown to decrease depression in older adults and increase self-confidence.
And if all that is not enough, I should also mention that strength training strongly decreases the likelihood of injury in the older adult population. It can also help to speed the recovery process if an injury were to occur.
As with other generations, form and technique in regards to strength training are of the utmost importance in mature people. Hiring a trainer is always a good idea if at all possible if even just for a few sessions to learn proper form and technique. I have listed the following general guidelines for strength training for the older adult population:
Older adults can typically train up to using 70 to 80 percent of their maximum resistance. However, if certain health risks are present, this percentage may be lowered.
The recommended number of repetitions for older adults is usually between 12 and 15 and no lower than eight.
Weight should be increased as strength increases. If you're not "feeling the burn" by fifteen repetitions, then more weight should be added (typically 2.5 to 5 pounds).
Older adults should perform one to two sets per exercise.
Six second repetitions are recommended for older adults. The lifting phase should happen to a 2 count while the lowering phase should happen to a four count.
Older adults should weight train using a full range of motion for each joint unless they have limiting physical factors.
Breathing is very important while lifting. The exhale should happen on the lifting phase while the inhale should take place on the lowering phase of the movement.
These are just a few suggestions. And as a reminder, it is always wise to check with your doctor prior to beginning a strength training program, especially if health risks do exist.
Even though it's not the focus of this article, I do want to mention again the importance of proper nutrition as well as flexibility and aerobic training. All of the benefits of strength training that I have spoken of cannot take place without good healthy eating. If you need a reminder on what proper nutrition is, I suggest you visit some of my other articles from my website.
Aerobic activity strongly enhances all of the cardiovascular benefits derived from strength training. It also helps to burn fat and improves daily functions. Flexibility training can help to correct muscular imbalances and postural distortions. It also plays a strong role in improving daily functional activity as well as just helping us to feel better!
In short, seniors can benefit immensely from a regular strength training program. I have seen many of them turn their lives around and improve their health immeasurably. It's never too late to make that healthy lifestyle change, even if you've never worked out before in your life! Start now. I promise you'll feel a whole lot better!
Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last thirteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website, www.MichaelElder.com.