Aging Strong: Importance of Strength Training for Seniors

Aging Strong: Importance of Strength Training for Seniors

By Professional Physical Therapy

Aging is an inevitable part of life, but it doesn’t mean that we have to succumb to the feeling of frailty and weakness as we get older. In fact, maintaining strength and vitality well into our golden years is not only possible but crucial for overall health and well-being. As we age, our bodies naturally undergo physiological changes that can lead to a decline in muscle mass and strength. However, with the right exercise strategies, seniors can defy the odds and age strong.

The Importance of Getting Seniors Strong

Strength training for seniors is not just about looking fit; it’s about preserving independence, reducing the risk of falls and fractures, and improving overall quality of life. Research has consistently shown that strength training offers numerous benefits for older adults. A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that older adults who participated in strength training programs live longer and better. Another study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society concluded that strength training can help prevent age-related muscle loss and improve balance, reducing the risk of falls among seniors.

“We progressively lose muscle mass as we age that might make it difficult to do daily activities such as getting out of a chair, carrying groceries into the house or doing yardwork”, says Christina Ciccione-Fazzolare, PT, DPT, CSCS, CES, Clinical Director and a certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Professional. She adds, “But, we can absolutely fend off the negative effects of muscle loss with regular weight training – and it’s never too late to start.”

Why Strength Decreases as You Get Older

Understanding why strength decreases with age is crucial in developing effective exercise strategies for seniors. Several factors contribute to a decline in muscle strength and power, including:

  • Hormonal changes.
  • Decreased physical activity.
  • Loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia).
  • Age-related changes in muscle fibers and neuromuscular function.

Health Benefits of Regular Physical Activity and Strength Training

Regular physical activity, including strength training, offers a myriad of health benefits for seniors. Not only does it improve muscle strength and endurance, but it also:

  • Increases bone density.
  • Reduces the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
  • Boosts mood and mental well-being.
  • Maintains a healthy weight.
  • Reduces risk of falls.
  • Lowers risk of stroke.
  • Enhances overall functional capacity.
  • Improves cognitive function.
  • Lowers risk of colon and breast cancer.

Barriers to Increasing Strength in the Elderly

Despite the compelling evidence supporting the benefits of strength training, many seniors are hesitant to engage in regular exercise. Robert Shapiro, PT, DPT, COMT, Vice President of Clinical Excellence at Professional looks at a few common myths about strength training for seniors and sets the record straight.

Myth 1: Strength Training is Dangerous for Seniors

Truth: When performed correctly and under professional guidance, strength training is safe for people of all ages, including seniors. It can significantly improve balance, reduce the risk of falls, and increase bone density, making bones less susceptible to fractures. A tailored program with a physical therapist can accommodate individual health conditions and mobility limitations, ensuring safety and efficacy.

Myth 2: It’s Too Late to Start Strength Training After a Certain Age

Truth: It’s never too late to start strength training. Research shows that even individuals starting strength training in their 70s and beyond can still experience significant gains in strength, mobility, and overall health. The key is to begin with exercises that match your current fitness level and progressively increase intensity under professional supervision.

Myth 3: Strength Training Will Make Seniors Bulky

Truth: Strength training, especially at a moderate intensity suitable for most seniors, does not automatically lead to significant muscle bulk. Instead, it helps maintain muscle mass that naturally declines with age, supporting a healthier metabolism, better mobility, and independence.

Myth 4: Exercise Increases the Risk of Heart Problems in the Elderly

Truth: Regular, moderate exercise, including strength training, is shown to improve heart health, even in older adults. It can help manage blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of heart disease. As always, individuals with existing health conditions should consult a healthcare professional before starting any new exercise program.

Myth 5: If You Have Joint Pain or Arthritis, You Should Avoid Strength Training

Truth: Strength training, when done correctly, can actually improve joint health and reduce pain caused by conditions like arthritis. Strengthening the muscles around the joints helps to better support them, reducing stress and pain. Low-impact exercises and resistance training are often recommended for individuals with joint issues.

Myth 6: Strength Training is Not as Beneficial as Cardio for Seniors

Truth: While cardiovascular exercise has its benefits, including improving heart health and endurance, strength training is equally important. It helps maintain muscle mass, supports metabolism, and improves bone density. A balanced exercise program that includes both cardio and strength training can offer the most comprehensive health benefits.

With the right guidance and support, seniors can overcome these obstacles and embark on a journey to improved strength and vitality.

Getting Started with a Strength and Conditioning Program

For seniors looking to increase their strength and fitness levels, it’s essential to start slowly and gradually progress over time. Consulting with a healthcare professional, such as a licensed physical therapist, can help ensure that the exercise program is safe and tailored to individual needs and abilities. A physical therapist can assess mobility and strength deficits, provide personalized exercise recommendations, and teach proper form and technique to reduce the risk of injury.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that older adults should strength train at least twice a week on non-consecutive days. Aim for 10-15 minutes and wait until soreness is gone before you start another session. Resting between workouts gives you time to recover to ensure you get the most benefits possible.

Exercises to Try at Home

Seniors can incorporate simple strength-building exercises into their daily routine to improve muscle strength and function.  Here are a few exercises that are safe and effective for older adults:

  1. Bodyweight Chair Squats: Stand in front of a chair with feet hip-width apart, bend the knees. Send the hips back and the arms straight out in front of you for balance. Sit all the way down. As soon as you make contact with the chair, stand back up.
  2. Wall Push-Ups: Stand facing a wall with arms extended at shoulder height, perform a push-up by bending the elbows and lowering the chest towards the wall, then push back to the starting position.
  3. Chair Leg Raises: Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair with feet flat on the floor, lift one leg straight out in front of you, hold for a few seconds, then lower back down.
  4. Bicep Curls with Light Weights: Hold a pair of light dumbbells or kettlebell in each hand, palms facing forward, bend the elbows and curl the weights towards the shoulders, then lower back down.

Importance of Seeing a Physical Therapist

Before starting any exercise program, seniors should consult with a physical therapist or healthcare provider to assess their current fitness level and address any underlying health concerns. A physical therapist can create a personalized exercise plan, monitor progress, and make adjustments as needed to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Your senior years do not need to be a time of limited activity. If you are ready to start a strength training program discover how Professional Physical Therapy can help.  Request an appointment for an assessment and/or physical therapy evaluation, so you can get your life healthier, defy the effects of aging and enjoy a higher quality of life.

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