People of almost all ages can lift weights and benefit from it if done safely. Strength (resistance) training may actually be more important for older adults than aerobic exercise, although both forms of exercise are recommended. Beginning in early adulthood and continuing throughout life, most people gradually lose muscle mass as they get older. The ancient Greeks had a term for this: sarcopenia, which means “reduction of flesh.” Studies show that most of us lose about 1 percent of our muscle mass each year after the age of 40 unless we take measures to avoid it. Strength training can help to minimize this loss.
What does this gradual loss of muscle mean for the average women or man? Possibly quite a lot! Most noticeable is the subtle change in body shape. Muscles lose tone and the sag of middle age begins to set in. Muscular fatigue occurs more quickly, which in turn increases the chances that an individual will become less active, expend fewer calories and gain body fat at the same time he or she is losing muscle mass. Muscle loss also slows metabolism by reducing the number of calories burned when at rest, another factor leading to slow but steady weight gain. Loss of balance occurs more frequently which increases the likelihood of falling and breaking bones. This is a legitimate concern because falls are one of the most common causes of injury among older adults.
The primary objective of strength training for older adults is to maintain an adequate level of muscular strength to enable a person to live a physically active and independent lifestyle. Normal everyday activities like climbing the stairs, carrying objects, and picking up a toddler will require less effort as you get stronger. Strength training is also beneficial in promoting healthy bones. The stress placed upon bones by pushing or pulling against a resistance stimulates the bones to become stronger and reduces the risk of age-associated osteoporosis.
To answer the question, an individual is never too old to begin strength training when done safely. That said, lifting weights can be somewhat intimidating if you’ve never done it before. You can start by performing simple strength-building exercises with light hand-held free weights or by utilizing your own body weight. Old-fashioned standbys like push-ups, sit-ups, step-ups and lunges will tone muscles and improve strength over time. For some people, working out in a social setting may be more motivating, so a health club may be preferable.
Guidelines for older adults
The following guidelines for strength training in older adults are adapted from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) manual “Complete Guide to Fitness and Health.” Special conditions, such as a history of heart disease or high blood pressure, should be evaluated on an individual basis with a physician.
- Perform one set of eight to 10 different exercises that train the major muscle groups (legs, arms, chest, back, shoulders and abdominals).
- Choose a weight that you can lift eight to 12 repetitions before fatiguing. If you have never lifted weights and are just beginning a program, then a range of 10 to 15 repetitions might be a good starting point.
- Maintain normal breathing patterns while lifting; don’t hold your breath.
- As you become stronger, increase in small increments the weight you are using. The increased resistance will continue to challenge your muscles as you remain in the eight to 12 repetition range.
- Strength train a minimum of two times a week, and preferably three, with at least 48 hours between workouts.
- Perform all exercises in a slow, controlled motion that is pain-free. Weight training exercises should never elicit pain. Fatigue, yes! Pain or discomfort, no!
- A total body strength training program of 20 to 30 minutes per workout is recommended.
- Given a choice, use machines to strength train as opposed to free weights, particularly if you have never lifted weights before. Machines help to stabilize the back and require less skill to use successfully.
For additional information, download the booklet “Growing Stronger — Strength Training for Older Adults” from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website.