Disclaimer: Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.
Maybe the gym is intimidating. Maybe you think lifting weights is a young person’s game. Or maybe you simply don’t want to strength train. These are all common, reasonable explanations for not strength training as you age.
But if these thoughts have run through your head they may be keeping you from better health.
While you might not have interest in being “jacked” you should know that strength training can have multiple health benefits, especially for those on the plus side of 55.
Strength training can help people of all ages maintain their weight, increase metabolism, sharpen thinking skills and enhance overall quality of life. But seniors can reap some especially important benefits that you don’t want to miss out on because you think weight-lifting is not for you.
“For the older population you want to maintain muscle mass,” says Erik Berger, MD, a Denver-based Internal and Sports Medicine Doctor. “Muscle mass, for the most part, will equal strength, which then helps with balance issues.”
Improved strength and balance helps you in many ways and avoiding falls is at the top of the list. Falls can range from simply unpleasant to truly life-altering for seniors, but they are avoidable if you simply maintain muscle mass and take the proper precautions. Strength also makes day-to-day activities easier, which may seem rudimentary but can have a big impact on your overall quality of life and your ability to live and operate independently.
Muscle mass can also help you maintain bone density and strength and reduce your risk for osteoporosis, which is more common for women.
“We think of bone as being a static tissue, but it’s not,” says Dr. Berger. “It’s like muscle, too. It does respond to exercise.”
This might not be obvious, but strength training can also help you manage chronic conditions such as back pain, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. Dr. Berger explains that it’s not necessarily the disease state that is improving, but that your body is operating more efficiently. It is using less energy to operate normally so it has more energy to dedicate to fighting the condition.
Ok. Strength training is good for the whole body. Got it. So hit the gym and start tossing the weights around, right? Well, not necessarily. As with starting any new exercise routine, if you experience any chest pain, shortness of breath with exercise or pain or soreness that lasts longer than a few days, you should contact your doctor.
Assuming you don’t experience any of these issues you should still ease your way into lifting weights and find what works best for you while still providing you a challenge. Bodyweight exercises are a great place to start and also a great place to stay if it suits you. Dr. Berger has a couple go-to recommendations for exercises to start with: simply standing up out of a seated position in a chair without using your hands and push-ups.
Several sets of standing without using your hands throughout the day can be very beneficial. You can start with certain push-up variations and make them more difficult as you gain strength. Pushing off a wall and gradually moving your feet farther from the wall is a great starting point, but you can also do push-ups from your knees or whatever version suits you. You can also use household items like a soup can or half gallon jug filled with water, in addition to bodyweight exercises.
Dr. Berger’s rule of thumb is that if you want to maintain strength you should strength train at least once a week. If you want to increase your muscle mass you should aim to train three times a week. He recommends focusing on one major muscle group--chest, back or legs--at a time and perform two to three exercises per muscle group.
But the details on reps and frequency are less important than just making sure you’re doing something. Dr. Berger stresses that you can see health benefits from one bout of exercise and that you won’t necessarily see the benefits that are occurring from strength training, but you should feel them.
“Most of the initial strength gains that come are neuromuscular,” says Dr. Berger. “Basically, you’re dusting off the nerve’s ability to recruit the muscle. That process becomes way more efficient over time and once your body has maxed out that potential you’ll start seeing muscle gain.”
While you’re probably not making bodybuilding a retirement hobby, a handful of push-ups, squats and presses each week can go a long way. And age is, as they say, but a number.
“The biggest barrier I hear is people think they’re past their prime and they can’t make improvements,” says Dr. Berger. “No matter your age, the neuromuscular plasticity and strengthening can happen. As long as you’re living and breathing, you can still make improvements in your physical fitness.”