When you hear the terms weight lifting or strength training, do you picture a greased-up, muscle-bound monster lifting a thousand pounds while he roars like a gorilla? Well, think again. Strength training — also known as resistance training or weight lifting — is considered one of the three pillars that support a healthy maintenance program for the human body. (The other two are healthy eating and cardio exercise.) So, it’s something all of us should be doing to whatever extent we’re able. And, it has nothing at all to do with building muscles until you look like The Hulk.
Despite scientists and doctors agreeing that strength training is vital to overall health and wellness, many seniors feel it’s not necessary for them. Many are also understandably concerned about safety, especially if they’ve never done strength training before. This guide will help seniors incorporate safe and effective resistance training into their lives.
Why seniors need strength training
The New York Times reported, “By our early 40s, most of us are losing muscle mass, at a rate of about 5 percent a decade, with the decline often precipitating a long slide toward frailty and dependence.” This is a biological fact, and it’s not something you’re able to ignore or escape. You have to battle against it.
The same NYT article went on to say, “older people who lift weights can slow or reverse that descent, studies show. In multiple experiments, older people who start to lift weights typically gain muscle mass and strength, as well as better mobility, mental sharpness and metabolic health.” So, the benefits of strength training — even for seniors — is well established. And, it goes beyond just the muscles.
In fact, strength training has been linked to all of the following benefits for seniors who make it a practice:
- Reduction in symptoms related to osteoarthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, back pain, and depression
- Improved balance
- Improved sleep
- Better mood
- Increased strength
- Increased energy (via an accelerated metabolism)
- Improved glucose control
- Greater self-confidence
- And much more
What’s involved in strength training
As noted in the introduction, lifting weights isn’t the same as bodybuilding. An effective strength training program doesn’t have to be strenuous, difficult, painful, or even time-consuming.
At its core, strength training is about moving your body against some sort of resistance. This can be achieved in many different ways, such as:
- Lifting free weights (dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, etc.)
- Using weight machines (such as those found in most gyms)
- Using resistance bands (large rubber bands of various thicknesses)
- Performing bodyweight exercises (like push-ups and pullups, where your body weight is the resistance)
- Water exercise (the water forms resistance to each movement)
All of these methods are effective and should be considered as you put together a strength training program that works for you.
How seniors can strength train safely
The following tips can help you incorporate strength training into your life safely:
Talk to your doctor
As with any new exercise program, the first thing you should do when starting a strength training program is to speak to your doctor. You’re, no doubt, aware of which muscles and joints cause you pain on a regular basis. But, your doctor will be able to provide insight into how to best work around your limitations and how to differentiate standard muscle soreness (which you’re going to experience) from potential strains or injuries you’ll need to care for.
No matter what route you take to start resistance training, you should always start very slow with minimal weight. Perform each movement using proper form, and start with just a few repetitions (or even just one, if that feels like enough.)
If you’ve never done strength training before, it’s easy to overdo it. Unfortunately, you may not realize you’ve done so until that evening or the next day when your muscles and joints are screaming in pain. So, even if you feel like you can keep going, force yourself to start slow and work your way up to heavier weights and more repetitions.
And, always listen to your body: some mild muscle aches are to be expected, but you should never experience serious pain during or after a workout. Have any potential injuries checked out and give your body the rest it needs to effectively recover.
Practical beginner strength training tips for seniors
If you’ve never lifted weights before, the idea of starting now may be intimidating. The following tips should help get your strength training habit off on the right foot:
Start at home
Even if you don’t own any sort of exercise equipment, you can easily begin an effective strength training practice at home. There are many bodyweight exercises you can do, such as:
- Step-ups (using the first stair of a stairwell or another stationary object that can support your weight)
- Push-ups (either on the floor or against a wall)
And, many traditional weightlifting exercises — bicep curls, tricep extensions, and shrugs — can be performed while holding objects you’ll find around the house, like a gallon of milk.
The key benefit of starting at home using whatever you have is that you can start right now, instead of putting it off. By getting yourself in the regular habit of exercising, you’ll start seeing the benefits and will likely find you enjoy it, too. Then, you can move forward, either by joining a gym or investing in more equipment to use at home.
Invest in some inexpensive tools
Getting a quality resistance workout in doesn’t have to cost a lot. In fact, it doesn’t have to cost anything, but some seniors find that bodyweight exercises like those described above can sometimes be a difficult starting point. For example, you may be carrying some extra weight, or joint pain may make exercises like squats and lunges too difficult at the beginning. Or, flexibility and other issues may make it difficult to perform them safely, especially if you’re alone.
That’s not a problem. With just a very small investment, you can get a few tools that will open the door to hundreds of beneficial movements:
- Dumbbells - for a beginner, one pair of 5- or 10-pound dumbbells may be all you need for an entire upper body workout.
- Resistance bands - a set of two or three resistance bands in different strengths can be incredibly versatile and effective.
- Wrist/ankle weights - by wearing light weights on your wrists and ankles, you can turn every movement you make throughout the day into an easy but effective strength training workout.
Join a gym
There’s most likely at least one quality gym in your community. And, it’s very likely they have programs available that are specially designed for seniors, including the Silver Sneakers program, which is often covered in full by Medicare. If personal trainers are available on staff, you may also want to consider working with one, at least until you’re comfortable with how each machine or weight is used.
Did you know you may receive a discount on health-related books and DVDs, fitness and sports nutrition products, and more using the Wellness Complete discount card? Check it out below to help supplement your new strength training program and enhance your health and wellness even more.