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Weight Training for Older Adults
An article published July 25, 2019 by Science Daily is titled: "How and Why Resistance Training Is Imperative for Older Adults." The introduction states:
"For many older adults, resistance training may not be part of their daily routine, but a new position statement suggests it is vital to improving their health and longevity.
'"When you poll people on if they want to live to 100 years old, few will respond with a 'yes'," says Maren Fragala, Ph.D., director of scientific affairs at Quest Diagnostics and lead author of the position statement.
"'The reason mainly being that many people associate advanced age with physical and cognitive decline, loss of independence and poor quality of life,' adds Mark Peterson, Ph.D., M.S., FACSM, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Michigan Medicine and one of the senior authors of the statement.
"The position statement, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and supported by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, highlights the benefits of strength and resistance training in older adults for healthier aging.
"Fragala explains that while aging does take a toll on the body, the statement provides evidence-based recommendations for successful resistance training, or exercise focused on building muscle endurance, programs for older adults.
"'Aging, even in the absence of chronic disease, is associated with a variety of biological changes that can contribute to decreases in skeletal muscle mass, strength and function,' Fragala says. 'Such losses decrease physiologic resilience and increase vulnerability to catastrophic events.'
"She adds, 'The exciting part about this position statement is that it provides evidence-based recommendations for resistance training in older adults to promote health and functional benefits, while preventing and minimizing fears.'"
This position statement (written in 2019) provides fitness instructors of older adults with strong evidence to the benefits of lifting weights for older adults. Later in the article, it states: "'Too few of older Americans participate in resistance training, largely because of fear, confusion and a lack of consensus to guide implementation,' Peterson [a member of the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation and Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging] says. 'By having this consensus statement supported by the National Strength and Condition Association, we hope it will have a positive impact on empowering healthier aging.'"
The Benefits of Lifting Weights
Anyone who regularly lifts weights doesn’t usually ask why we do it because they have already figured it out. But there are people who wonder why people bother to do it. Why should women do it? Why should older people do it?
The answer is: It benefits everyone, regardless of age or gender.
"If you would like to function better, feel better, and look better, then you should begin a regular resistance training program that progressively strengthens all your major muscle groups."
"Without regular resistance exercise you will continue to lose muscle and bone, and you will have further reductions in strength and fitness. Aerobic activity such as walking, running, cycling and dancing are preferable for promoting heart health and cardiorespiratory fitness, but they will not prevent age-related reductions in muscle and bone. Continue to perform regular aerobic activity, but be sure to complement your endurance exercise with sensible strength training." [My italics.]2
Most people over 50 are concerned about their general health and fitness more so than their atheltic abilities. In the text, Fitness Professional's Guide to Older Adult Strength Training by Thomas R. Baechle and Wayne L. Westcott, there is a summary of the benefits of strength training for older adults. Among the many benefits are these dozen:3
Better body composition. Research suggests that you can replace some of your fat with lean muscle within two months of regular strength training. While reducing fat, you will be rebuilding muscle.
Increases metabolic rate. It is your resting metabolism which may improve, as well as an increase in daily calorie requirements after three months of weight training. As you train, the body learns how to use fuel more efficiently, thus it should help you maintain weight.
Decreases physical discomfort. Approximately 80% of patients report less or no pain after about three months of specific low-back strengthening exercise. (See also: Back Problems)
Reduces arthritic pain. Older adults with arthritis, who also strength train, report that their symptoms improve after a few months. (See also: Exercise and Arthritis)
Increases bone mineral density. Research shows that bone density increases when people use weight bearing exercises and resistance training. Thus, resistance training can reduce the risk or help manage osteoporosis. (See also: Exercise and Osteoporosis)
Enhances glucose utilization. This may help to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. (See also: Exercise and Diabetes)
Faster gastrointestinal transit. This may reduce the risk of colon cancer and other motility disorders of the gastrointestinal system.
Reduces resting blood pressure. Most likely, both the diastolic and systolic readings will go down after regularly strength training for a few months. (See also: Exercise and Hypertension)
Improves blood lipid profiles. Strength training should help to lower levels of LDL cholesterol and higher levels of HDL cholesterol. (See also: Exercise and Heart Disease)
Improves post-coronary performance. This will happen because there will be higher muscular functional capacity and lower cardiovascular stress from routine and unplanned physical activity. If you always exercise opposite muscles (for example, bicep and tricep), you will also develop balanced muscle strength around your joints, making them stronger and more stable. (See also: Exercise and Heart Disease)
Enhances self-confidence. You will feel better about yourself and thus be motivated to continue. This self-confidence has been reported in studies when sedentary men and women follow two months of regular strength training. (See also: Exercise and Mood)
Relieves depression. Older adults clinically diagnosed with mild-to-moderate depression see improvement after two months of strength training. (See also: Exercise and Mood)
We do strength training for at least three other reasons beyond the 12 that are listed above: (1) to increase musculature, our body’s primary calorie burner; (2) to strengthen the body which allows it to function efficiently; and (3) to get the aesthetic benefit of toned muscles. It revitalizes muscle cells and it can reverse physical frailty.
Some Tips for Successful Weightlifting
TIP #1: When do I breathe?
When asked by fitness class participants, “When should I breathe when lifting weights?” the most common response from fitness professionals is that you should exhale during exertion and inhale as you release. During a bicep curl, for instance, you would exhale as you curl up and inhale on the way back down. During a crunch, you would exhale as you lift your head and shoulders and inhale as you go back to the mat.
An even easier way to remember this rule is simply to think in terms of gravity: when you’re moving against gravity, you exhale; when you’re moving with gravity, you inhale.
Not everyone agrees, however, that you must be this conscientious about your breathing while doing resistance training. In the end, it's up to you. The most important thing to remember is BREATHE. Do not hold your breath!
TIP #2: When, How, How Often, and How Much should I lift weights?
- WHEN? Studies have shown no difference in the benefits of lifting before or after your cardiovascular workout. You can strength train any time of the day, and before or after a cardiovascular workout — the results will be the same.
- HOW? Muscles need stimulus to grow stronger. You want to work your muscles to the point of fatigue. Put another way: The last few repetitions should be difficult.
- HOW OFTEN? Most sources recommend doing strength training three times a week with 8 to 15 repetitions in each set. Each set should be repeated, if possible.
- HOW MUCH? Begin with a very light weight that you know you can lift. Increase the weight gradually until you find a weight that makes you fatigued after eight repetitions. A higher number of repetitions using a relatively low amount of weight is conducive to building muscular endurance. Fewer repetitions with a relatively high weight will build muscular strength.
TIP #3: Don't swing!
Many times in class you have heard me say, “Keep control. Stop at the top of your movement and at the bottom. Use your muscles to move that weight.” That swinging movement at the top and bottom of your exercise is called momentum and it can be a good thing: The momentum of your moving body carries you further than if you had to struggle against every step.
However, when you’re exercising to improve your fitness level or lose weight, momentum is a crutch which you want to consciously avoid. If you swing your dumbbells too fast, and momentum takes control, you are losing a large portion of the resistance benefits of the exercise.
To get the most benefit from the action, you should lift and lower slowly, spending the same amount of time on the lifting as well as the lowering phases. If you can’t do that, choose lighter dumbbells. If you’re going to spend time working out, you might as well do it right.
What does the research tell us about strength training?
Study #1: Strength Training Improves Cognition
A study done right here in our own backyard — at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility and the Brain Research Centre at Vancouver Coastal Health — worked with 86 women who had probable mild cognitive impairment. They performed resistance and aerobic training twice a week for six months, and measured their cognitive functions as well.
“There is much debate as to whether cognitive function can be improved once there is noticeable impairment,” explained Teresa Liu-Ambrose, principal investigator with the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility and the Brain Research Centre at Vancouver Coastal Health.
“What our results show is that resistance training can indeed improve both your cognitive performance and your brain function. What is key is that it will improve two processes that are highly sensitive to the effects of aging and neurodegeneration: executive function and associative memory—often impaired in early stages of Alzheimer's disease.” 4
See also: Exercise and our Brain
Study #2: How often should seniors do strength training?
At the Academic Health Centre of the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, J. DiFrancisco-Donoghue, W. Werner and P.C. Douris decided to compare once-weekly and twice-weekly strength training in older adults. Their results were published in the January 2007 edition of British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Beginning with the assumption that strength does benefit the health and function of older adults, this small study — only 18 subjects (7 women and 11 men) — is still worthy of note. Participants, divided into two groups, were between 65 and 79 years of age, and both groups “performed one set of exercise to muscular fatigue [my italics].” Each set included three upper body and three lower body exercises. For nine weeks, one group trained one day a week and the other group trained two days a week.
The study concluded that there were no significant changes between training once a week or twice a week. The researchers said: “One set of exercises performed once weekly to muscle fatigue improved strength as well as twice a week in the older adult.”5
Study #3: Strength Training improves cognitive function and gives economic benefits
Two studies — one a follow-up of the other — seem to indicate that strength training for seniors can provide them with sustained cognitive functions and even economic benefits. The first research, called the Brain Power Study, was carried out at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility at Vancouver Coastal Health and UBC, and was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in January 2010. The one-year follow-up study was recently published by UBC.
The first study, which worked with women between 65 and 75 years of age, concluded that 12 months of once-or-twice-weekly strength training could result in improved cognitive functions — that is, functions which are necessary for independent living.
The second study followed up on the first, and it found two new critical results. By interviewing the participants and looking at their situation one year after the first study, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, principal investigator, said: “We were very surprised to discover the group that sustained cognitive benefits was the once-weekly strength training group...” The researchers concluded that “this group was more successful at being able to maintain the same level of physical activity achieved in the original study.”
No one knows for sure why this happened, but there is speculation that seniors may think that they must undertake an activity program “multiple times per week to receive any benefit,” but when they try to do it, they are unable to maintain it. It may also be because there is a general lack of programs specifically geared towards older adults, so people were unable to find classes.
Also involved in the research were health economists Jennifer Davis and Carlo Marra, who are research scientists with the Collaboration for Outcomes Research and Evaluation at St. Paul’s Hospital and UBC Faculty of Medicine. After studying the original study and the one-year follow-up, they determined that the once-weekly group “incurred fewer health care resource utilization costs and had fewer falls than the twice-weekly balance and tone group.” Again, it is assumed that the once-weekly group were able to maintain consistent exercise throughout the year.
“This suggests that once-weekly resistance training is cost saving, and the right type of exercise for seniors to achieve maximum economic and health benefits,” says Davis.6
Study #4: Strength training after a stroke
Jocelyn E. Harris and Janice Eng, both PhD’s who work at UBC with the Rehabilitation Sciences Department and the Department of Physical Therapy, respectively, wanted to see if strength lost due to a stroke could be improved with strength training. The goal, of course, was to improve the person’s function.
They looked at 650 randomized controlled trials from 1950 through April 2009 and chose 13 to be included in their review, which involved a total of 517 individuals. These articles were assessed “according to outcomes: strength, upper-limb function, and activities of daily living.”
No one reported adverse effects to strength training. And the researchers concluded that “There is evidence that strength training can improve upper-limb strength and function without increasing tone or pain in individuals with stroke.”7
Study #5: Old news!
It has a somewhat ambiguous title — The Intensity and Effects of Strength Training in the Elderly. Some of the authors have long names: Frank Mayer, Fredericke Scharhag-Rosenberger, Anja Carlsohn, Michael Cassel, Steffen Muller, and Jurgen Scharhag. And the report was published in a difficult-to-pronounce magazine: aerzteblatt-international. But the results of the study are worth noting.
For this study, 60 was the low number for the "elderly" classification. The group of researchers began with the very clear premise that the older adult needs “strength training more and more as they grow older to stay mobile for their everyday activities.”
Quite simply, we strength train to try to reduce the loss of muscle mass which is a natural aging process and which causes a loss of motor function. According to this study, “Muscle strength gradually decreases from the 30th year until about the 50th year of life. In the 6th decade of life, an accelerated, non-linear decrease by 15% has been observed, and by the 8th decade, this may be up to 30%.“
The researchers chose to search for studies that had been done between 2005 and 2010. They found more than 1500 studies, and zeroed in on 33 of them which were particularly pertinent to the information they were seeking.
The following conclusions were made:
- Strength training improves our muscles’ ability “to recruit motor units and their firing rate.”
- By increasing muscle mass through strength training, we can also increase muscle strength.
- Muscle mass can be increased if intensity is 60% to 85% of the individual‘s maximum voluntary strength. (Remember what I always tell you in class: you should feel muscle fatigue.)
- Physical activity can lead to an increase in, or reduction in the loss of, bone density, particularly in elderly postmenopausal women.
- Those with poor performance at the beginning can still achieve improvement, even with less frequent training.
- Negative side effects to strength training are rare.
The (totally predictable) final conclusion of the research was: “Progressive strength training in the elderly is efficient, even with higher intensities, to reduce sarcopenia [the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength associated with aging], and to retain motor function.” 8
- Fitness Class Benefits
- Fitness Principles
- Book Review: Body by Science
- Exercise and Lifestyle and Older Adults: Recent Research
- Book Review: Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?
- Metabolism, Calorie Intake, and False Promises: Getting Through the Dieting Maze
Feel free to check out my entire series of articles about exercise and its affect on various medical conditions:
- Exercise and Arthritis
- Exercise and Asthma
- Exercise and Balance
- Exercise and Cancer
- Exercise and Chronic Pain
- Exercise and Circulation
- Exercise and COPD
- Exercise and Dementia
- Exercise and Diabetes
- Exercise and Heart Disease
- Exercise and Hypertension
- Exercise and Lifestyle and Older Adults: Recent Research
- Exercise and Mood
- Exercise and Osteoporosis
- Exercise and Our Brain
- Exercise and Parkinson's
- Exercise and Sleep
- Exercise and Stroke
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. ↩︎
From Strength Training past 50, Third Edition by Wayne Westcott. ↩︎
Suggestions for this list also came from The CFES Group Exercise Instructor Course, Canadian Fitness Education Services Ltd., 2005. ↩︎