By Lorie Swaydan, Huntsman World Senior Games

Strength training, also known as resistance training, “...involves using your own bodyweight or tools, like dumbbells or resistance bands, to build muscle mass, strength, and endurance.” Studies have shown that strength training has many benefits including increasing metabolism to help maintain a healthy weight,  increasing bone density, and building strong muscles. Stronger muscles means better balance, fewer falls and therefore a more independent lifestyle. Strength training can also help manage chronic conditions like arthritis and is even linked to clearer thinking skills in older adults. Given the abundance of research that points to the benefits of strength training for seniors, it is surprising that only about 8.7% of people aged 75 and older participate in this form of exercise as a regular part of their routine. 

Loss of muscle is a natural part of aging. According to Amanda Carlson, a registered dietician and the director of performance nutrition and research at an Arizona training facility, adults can lose "five to seven pounds of muscle tissue each decade." Without exercise, that loss of muscle will be replaced by fat. Further, aerobic exercise such as walking or biking is not enough to maintain muscle tone. Strength training is needed to actually build muscle. David Heber, director of UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition explains, “You have to do what we call resistance exercise. This can take a lot of different forms. It could be lifting weights, it could be stretchy bands, but the key is you have to stretch a muscle. When you stretch a muscle to the point of straining it, as is the goal during weight lifting, you set in motion the body's natural muscle-building response.” Strength training is the best way to fight the loss of muscle and even reverse the process! 

Rebuilding muscle tissue is just one result of resistance training; it also strengthens bones. After about age 35, your body declines in its ability to maintain bone density. In the United States about 54 million people have osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones. By stressing the bones, strength training can increase bone density as well as build muscle to fight the effects of osteoporosis. Further, it specifically targets areas that are prone to fractures such as wrists, hips and spine. With increased muscle and bone strength, the chances of falling are greatly reduced. This means more independence as we age. Keeping our muscles and bones strong will allow us to participate in a wider range of activities for a longer period of time without fear of injury. 

Some people may be hesitant to add strength training to their regular exercise routine due to misconceptions. For example, women may think that lifting weights will automatically make you “bulk up.” This isn’t true. Weight lifting will help burn more calories and tone your muscles effectively. Some aspects of weight training help women in particular. Reduction of osteoporosis is one example since it affects women more than men, especially after menopause. According to the Cleveland Clinic, after age 50, one in two women will experience an osteoporosis-related fracture. Further, men and women can both benefit from strength training. Strengthlog.com reports, “Both men and women 50 and above experience gains in strength and muscle mass from lifting weights.” Even though men start out with more muscle mass, women show gains in strength and toning when using weights on a regular basis. 

Another misconception is that lifting weights only benefits the young. Again, not true. The CDC notes that loss of strength in seniors means more falls, the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults. “During 2014, approximately 27,000 older adults died because of falls; 2.8 million were treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries, and approximately 800,000 of these patients were subsequently hospitalized.” Olga Hays, an American Council on Exercise-certified wellness promotion specialist at Sharp HealthCare, believes that sarcopenia, the loss of muscle tissue due to aging, creates unnecessary problems for older adults. “After middle age, people lose between 3% and 5% of their muscle mass per decade, which affects their ability to perform many routine activities and lead an independent lifestyle.” On the other hand, exercise physiologist, researcher and author Mark Peterson believes that seniors can maintain and even increase muscle strength by incorporating weight lifting into their exercise habits. His analysis of 39 studies supports this. He found that  “among more than 1,300 adults over the age of 50, muscle mass could be increased by an average of nearly 2.5 pounds in just five months.” Failing to fight the effects of muscle loss will make life for seniors more difficult. Simple daily tasks like getting out of a chair become more difficult and even dangerous. Strength training is the answer.

One more misconception is that strength training can only be done in a gym. False. It certainly can be done in a gym, but resistance training can also be done safely at home using just body weight or simple tools like resistance bands or even cans of soup. It is of course important to do any exercise properly, so learning the proper technique with a trainer or watching some good videos before beginning is recommended. Below are several good resources to start a strength training routine. 

Silversneakers.com suggests that the 5 best bodyweight exercises for seniors are the following:

  • Squat
  • Glute Bridge
  • Modified Pushup
  • StepUp
  • Bird Dog

Start with 2 or 3 sets with 8 to 12 repetitions. Most experts suggest doing your strength training routine at least twice a week to produce good results. You can break up the workout choosing to do a few exercises together, or do one full body workout.  “As long as you take the muscle you are working to fatigue — meaning you can't lift another repetition — you are doing the work necessary to make the muscle stronger.” (Mayoclinic.org)

Verywellfit.com suggests the following strength training exercises using dumbbells.

For the Upper Body:

  • Overhead Press
  • Bent-over Rows
  • Front Raise
  • Arm Curl
  • Triceps Extension 

For the Lower Body:

  • Shoulder Squat
  • Forward Lunge

They emphasize the importance of rest between sessions and suggest alternating weight lifting with walking or other aerobic exercise. 

Verywellfit.com also has a more challenging full-body circuit workout:

  • Plank on an exercise ball
  • Pull Ups
  • Box Jumps
  • Dumbbell Rows
  • V Sits
  • Side Plank

Whether beginning, moderate or advanced, adding strength training exercises to your exercise routine is not as difficult as it may seem. It’s fun and helps in so many ways. Maintaining or even increasing muscular strength is one of the best things seniors can do to stay healthy for as long as possible. Just remember, be sure to learn the proper way to use weights, and always touch base with your doctor before starting any new exercise program!