Strong Muscles Mean Improved Health

Seniors of all ages and physical situations can benefit from regular strength training. Fran Welch, 69, of Charlotte, NC, literally stumbled into the benefits of strength training. Six years ago, she tripped over a bedspread and twisted her knee badly enough to need a physician's care. During rehab, she was given a set of weight-based exercises to help strengthen her leg muscles and speed her recovery. Fran has always been active, but she noticed a distinct improvement after following the new regimen.

The benefits of strength training include increased bone density, improved heart functioning, better blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes, and even reduced depression, according to Miriam Nelson, PhD, associate chief of the Human Nutrition, Exercise Physiology, and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. The greatest benefit, however, may be strength training's ability to build muscle.

"Starting in our 30s and 40s, people start to lose a quarter-pound of muscle every year," explains Dr. Nelson, author of the best-selling book Strong Women Stay Young. "We believe that much of this loss can be stopped or reduced with simple strength training."

Other conditions that might benefit include back pain, recovery from surgery, and even mild high blood pressure.

Stronger Bones and Greater Mobility

"There are documented cases of individuals who required a cane or a walker to get around, but after strength training they no longer needed those items for mobility," says Michael Flynn, PhD, a professor of kinesiology and director of the Max E. Wastl Human Performance Laboratory at Purdue University.

In one study, Dr. Flynn monitored 29 women aged 69-84. Fifteen were put on a weekly strength training program, while 14 people in the control group did not change their activity levels.

"The subjective reports from the participants were quite remarkable," Dr. Flynn says. "They reported being able to do things that they couldn't do before. Strength training can significantly improve the quality of seniors' lives, as well as lengthen the amount of time a person can function independently and perform all the tasks we tend to take for granted."

Getting Started

Dr. Nelson recommends you take the following steps before beginning a strength training program:

  • Get good information—Talk with your doctor, read reputable books, and visit reliable websites. Seek out exercises that are appropriate for your age and physical condition. Remember that workouts that fit naturally with your lifestyle are more likely to become permanent.
  • Consult with your physician—You need to make certain you are medically stable before beginning any kind of physical activity program.
  • Get the proper equipment or join a health club —Try dumbbells and ankle weights, and even using your own body weight. For example, doing squats can help improve body alignment and an overall sense of balance.

Once you're ready to exercise, keep these basic principles in mind:

  • Lift as heavy a weight as you can while maintaining proper form.
  • Do two sets of 8-10 repetitions for each exercise.
  • Exercise slowly and use a full range of motion.
  • Work on paired muscle groups to get the most benefit. For example, if you're exercising your biceps, also include exercises that will strengthen your triceps.

"You can get a pretty good workout in about 20-30 minutes a day, a couple of times a week," Dr. Nelson says. "Within two to three weeks people notice a difference and can feel their muscles getting stronger."