Some may consider strength training to be for the young, but maintaining muscle mass through targeted exercise is important for people of all ages, including the elderly.

We lose muscle mass as we age, and the decline is even more precipitous for those living more sedentary lives. The old adage use it or lose it is very true when it comes to muscles. But strength training for senior citizens has other benefits, too.

People with heart disease or arthritis experienced improved health from the weight loss, increased mobility, and enhanced muscle strength that comes from light strength training, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Strength training is best used in concert with aerobic activity, the CDC says, but any level of physical activity helps to improve health.

Researchers at Tufts University found that elderly men and women with advanced osteoarthritis in the knee experienced a 43% reduction in pain after strength training. The effect was so strong that it was equal to or better than taking medication, researchers said.

With about 50% of adults aged 65 and older affected by arthritis, this finding has far-reaching implications. Arthritis makes it difficult to exercise, but strength training is critical because it increases a person’s range of motion while boosting muscle mass and protecting affected joints, reports the Mayo Clinic.

Diabetes patients may also see a benefit from strength training.

Older Hispanic diabetes patients were evaluated as they underwent a 16-week program of strength training. Scientists found the patients experienced significantly improved blood glucose levels and improved muscle mass, according to research published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences.

The results were so successful that researchers recommended that weight training be included as part of standard care to patients at high risk of diabetes.

Strength training among elderly reduces risk of frailty, researchers say.

While the earlier in life one begins to exercise the better, it’s never too late to begin. Other people may be active earlier in their life, but then become increasingly sedentary in advanced age.

Starting at age 30, muscle mass begins to drop and people must exercise to maintain it. While cardio fitness is important for heart health, strength training maintains muscle mass. Weight-bearing exercise is also important to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, and manage the condition in those who have it.

By the time adults reach the age of 80, they lose about 50% of muscle mass on average if they don’t exercise, according to Austrian researchers who studied the benefits of strength training for the elderly.

With large numbers of people growing old but not maintaining a regular workout routine, many elderly grow extremely weak. This leads to a high rate of frailty among people over the age of 65. The Austrian researchers discovered that a carefully designed strength-training regimen built hand strength and helped the elderly they studied to live independently for longer.

The study showed that strength training increased study subjects’ hand strength by about 20%, while also increasing overall mobility, quality of life, and cognitive ability. This increased strength had another side benefit—reduced risk of falls. Falling can be serious for the elderly, sometimes causing life-threatening injuries. Reducing the risk of falls reduces the risk of related health problems.

And while the fountain of youth remains elusive, the CDC says strength training helps keep people looking and feeling younger for longer, literally slowing the “physiological aging clock.”

Strength-training safety tips

It may seem scary for older people to exercise if they have grown weak, but go slow, listen to your body, and follow safety precautions. With a few safety tips in mind, you will soon enjoy the benefits of exercise.

To maintain proper safety, the CDC recommends starting out slow. As your muscles grow stronger, try heavier weights or more repetitions to enjoy maximum benefit. Another thing to focus on is good form. This prevents injury and can also help signal if you’ve pushed past your limit. As you exercise, continue to make sure your wrists remain in one straight line and your elbows stay close to your sides.

If you find yourself unable to lift weight with proper form, that’s a sign you’ve done too much and should rest. If at one session, you complete all your sets at once without needing a break, then it might be time to increase the intensity by using heavier weights.

Tips for elderly who want to strength-train

The CDC has compiled a strength-training program suitable for older people wishing to improve their level of physical fitness.

  1. Warm up with a five-minute walk to get the blood flowing. This will help reduce the risk of injury, such as a pulled muscle.
  2. Do wall pushups. Find a wall to lean against at a slight angle and place your palms flat against the surface. Slowly bend your elbows as you allow your body to move toward the wall. Hold for a count of two, and then slowly move back to the starting position. Repeat ten times, rest for one minute, and then repeat for a second set of ten.
  3. Try a bicep curl. Sit on a chair and grab light free weights or even soup cans—anything you have on hand in the house. With your arms at your sides, hold the weights palm side up. Slowly lift your forearms toward the shoulders, keeping the palms toward the shoulders, elbows close by your side. Pause at the top for a count of two and then lower slowly down. Repeat ten times, rest for one minute, and then continue with another set.
  4. Work the legs with knee curls. Stand behind the back of a chair, placing your hands gently on the top. Wear ankle weights or just use your body’s own weight. Flex the right foot and lift it up toward your glutes. Hold for a count of two before slowly lowering down. Repeat ten times each side, with a short pause in between sets.

How do you stay strong in old age?

Image by Isle of Man Government via Flickr

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