Strength Training for Seniors Can Slow Down and Even Reverse Some Effects of Aging
Physiological changes due to the aging process are often taken to be a necessary evil of growing older. However, research has shown that exercise, especially strength training, can slow down and even reverse some effects of the march of time.
Many people erroneously believe that aging inevitably leads to degeneration and a loss of functionality. This simply isn’t true! Many of the affects of aging which are assumed to be related to age itself are actually products of inactivity. The old saying “use it or lose it” holds very true regarding age and physical ability.
Of course, certain changes do happen to the body as time goes on, however, these changes often lead to a downward spiral. Due to certain age-related changes, and indeed negative age-related stereotypes, one may begin to lose confidence and becomes less and less active, quickly compounding many effects of aging which could be slowed or even reversed with the right exercise program. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine and many other authoritative sources, in the vast majority of cases, the right exercise program for seniors should include a resistance training component.
Continue reading to learn about the health benefits of strength training for seniors, age-related physiological changes and how exercise may make them easier to bear, common health conditions to look out for when beginning an exercise program, sample exercises that are great for seniors’ strength training programs, and where to find senior strength training programs near you.
What Is Strength Training?
Strength training, also known as weight training, resistance training, or simply weight lifting, refers to any exercise which has the goal of encouraging the body to adapt to challenges placed upon it by becoming stronger. Certain modes of strength training add an additional focus on muscular endurance, and at more advanced levels, muscular power, or the ability to generate force at the highest rate of speed.
Different forms of resistance are used in strength training, including but not limited to bodyweight, dumbbells, barbells, cable machines, resistance bands, and medicine balls. If you would like to learn more about the concepts behind strength training, including sets and reps, weight training volume, and more, we have a large section of articles devoted to all aspects of strength training.
Health Benefits of Strength Training for Seniors
According to the Center for Disease Control, the health benefits of strength training generally greatly outweigh the risks. Many older adults cite that a fear of injury and fear of instigating a heart attack keep them from pursuing an exercise program. These events are unlikely if you receive a doctor’s clearance prior to beginning exercise, exercise with the proper technique, and follow the right exercise program for your own body with its unique strengths and limitations.
Many of the health benefits of strength training for seniors are the same benefits enjoyed by people of any age who commit to a strength training program.
These benefits include:
- Increased lean body mass and reduced body fat
- Gains in strength and endurance
- Improved strength of connective tissue
- Metabolic and hormonal benefits
- Reduction in lower back pain
- Better mood, better sleep, reduced stress, and more
Consider how the above benefits directly address aspects of physical life that often become worse with age and inactivity.
Additional benefits that may be especially interesting to the senior population include:
- Arthritis pain relief
- Increased bone density, combating osteoporosis
- Lowered blood pressure
- Improved cholesterol levels
- Falls become less likely due to increased balance, coordination, and strength
I highly recommend that you seek the help of a personal trainer as you get started with a senior strength training program. Your trainer can teach you how to exercise safely and effectively so you can begin enjoying the health benefits of strength training for seniors as quickly as possible.
Age-Related Physiological Changes
Common age-related physiological changes must be taken into account in senior strength training programs.
Even if you were strong and active earlier on in life, you might be surprised at your body’s changes if you haven’t been active in a while.
These changes, and their training implications, include:
- Reduced muscle mass and bone mass. Start programs slowly with one or two sets of 8 or so exercises using lower weight, adding more sets and higher weight gradually as you become stronger.
- Maximal oxygen uptake, maximal exercise heart rate, and pulmonary efficiency all decrease. Start with short duration workouts (20-45 minutes) with low resistance and add more time and weight slowly as you begin to adapt.
- Balance and neuromuscular control may be impaired. Pay special attention to fall prevention and watch for foot issues. It may be best to start out using exercise machines and progress to more-effective free weight exercises as you get stronger. Include balance training exercises in your routines. Scientific studies and this trainer’s experience both validate the fact that balance and coordination can improve rapidly with training.
Common Health Conditions Affecting Seniors
The following diseases and health conditions are prevalent among the senior population:
- Heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Medication side effects
If you have any of these issues or any other serious health conditions, see your doctor right away. Although exercise can help with many chronic diseases, there are specific important guidelines that must be followed to make sure exercising doesn’t aggravate your condition. Your doctor will need to clear you for exercise before it’s safe for you to begin.
If you choose to exercise with a personal trainer, they will conduct a physical activity readiness screening meant to discover any undiagnosed health conditions. Oftentimes, certain types of exercise may be approved for certain conditions, but you must get a doctor’s clearance first. Some trainers are specially trained to work with older folks with chronic conditions.
Sample Exercises for Senior Strength Training Programs
Many strength training exercises that are great for any age group are also great for senior strength training programs. Which exercises are right for you at any give phase of life are more related to mobility and fitness level than age. A great many strength training exercises are just fine for seniors as long as you are generally healthy and have no serious postural issues, musculoskeletal problems, or joint issues. Be sure to start with a light load and training volume, and add more weight and sets/reps slowly as you become stronger.
The videos below show two classic strength training exercises that can work well for most exercisers: the dumbbell biceps curl and the dumbbell triceps kickback. These exercises target both major muscles of the upper arm and are great to use together as part of an upper body strength program.
If you have mobility issues or chronic health conditions, have your doctor clear you for exercise before beginning a new program. After you have received your doctor’s approval to do so, it’s most appropriate to contact a personal trainer who can conduct a fitness assessment and design a program that is suitable for your body and fitness level.
Where to Find Senior Strength Training Programs
Especially if you’ve never followed a structured exercise program before, or if it’s been a while since you have exercised, it can be intimidating to begin a new program. There is often an uphill battle as you break bad habits that may have been years or even decades as you begin to live a more healthy lifestyle. Remember that it can be done; many others have done it before, and there is support available if you know where to look.
As mentioned above, a great first step is finding a personal trainer who can teach you how to exercise properly and develop a program specific tailored to your body and your goals. Do an online search for personal trainers in your area, or better yet call your local YMCA or other local gyms to discuss the personal training services they offer.
You may enjoy exercising in a group fitness class, which is also a great way to meet like-minded people. Your local YMCA or other gyms may offer group fitness classes designed for older adults, such as Zumba Gold, or classes specifically for senior strength training.
Your health plan may offer the Silver Sneakers program, which can help offset the costs of gym membership. Visit silversneakers.com to see if your health plan participates in the Silver Sneakers program.
It’s my hope that this article has encouraged you to begin a strength training program. I strongly believe that strength training is vital to improved quality of life for people of all ages.
Strength training for seniors is a huge part of senior fitness, but in order to get in the best shape and experience the most health benefits, you must follow an integrated fitness program including components of cardiovascular training, flexibility, balance training, core stability and core strength, and nutrition. A personal trainer is the best resource to help you develop an integrated fitness plan, as they are trained to address all of these components.
Please share this article with other seniors in your life and encourage them to begin their own strength training program. If you’re not yet a senior yourself, consider sharing this article with loved ones and friends who could benefit from a senior strength training program.