Type to search

What's stopping you? Setting the Record Straight on Older Adult Strength Training

By Wayne Wescott, Ph.D., and Rita La Rosa Loud, B.S.

How-to-Build-Muscle-for-Better-Longevity-722x406Are preconceived thoughts and ideas deterring you from participating in physical activities or exercise regiments that could otherwise enhance your current health and fitness status?  To help overcome these obstacles, we offer inspirational testimonials from active older adult role models, and findings from pertinent research studies that support resistance training for seniors as a means to build a strong body and musculoskeletal foundation.

Q. At my age, why should I bother strength training?  Isn’t it too late for me? 
The good news is it’s never too late!  As a matter of fact, you can build muscle just as easily as a younger person.  Our studies, as well as many others, have shown that a brief resistance training program consisting of 10  basic strength exercises for the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body can significantly increase muscle mass in adults and older adults up to 90 years of age!  There are several ways to perform resistance training.  You can lift weights, exercise on strength machines or use elastic bands to rebuild muscle.  Just be sure to consider a fitness facility that provides strength training instruction and specific programs designed for seniors.
Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 12.49.48 PM“My hope and goal as a result of participating in a strength training program was to be able to strengthen my left arm injured in an automobile accident while increasing my overall flexibility.  The improvement has been remarkable!  I can now get up from a chair by pushing with my left arm, which I couldn’t do since before my auto accident.  It is easier to put on my stockings, tie my shoes, and I am able to walk 2 miles in 40 minutes now.  I am considered an old man of 81 years, however, I do not feel like one due to resistance training!” … Bob Clark, 81
Q. Frankly it depresses me to think of what it might entail to get involved in an exercise program, so what’s the use.  I feel exhausted most days. 
If you are not engaged in some form of physical activity, it’s normal to feel tired, sluggish, even down in the dumps.  Fortunately, one of the health benefits of resistance exercise is that it enhances one’s mental health.  According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, resistance exercise reduces symptoms of fatigue and depression, as well as increases self-esteem.  In a 10-week study we conducted with adults and older adults, regular strength and endurance exercise produced significant improvements in physical self-concept, positive engagement, revitalization, tranquility, and tension, while reducing symptoms of depression and fatigue.
Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 12.58.37 PMSoon after retiring, Patty decided to join a health and fitness center.  “I was overweight, struggling with fatigue, and suffering from insomnia.  As a result of my exercise participation during the last 7 years, I have shed 40 lbs. and at age 62, I currently weigh 125 lbs.  By adhering to the strength training, cardiovascular, and stretching protocols, I have maintained my weight loss, improved my body composition, and both my fatigue and insomnia have faded away.  With renewed sense of self and marked improvement in my energy level, I now enjoy what promises to be the sweeter side of life!” …Patty Churchill, 62
Q. I don’t know.  I have high blood pressure.  Won’t exercise make it worse?
Actually, just the opposite will occur.  Numerous studies have shown significant reductions in resting blood pressure following as little as 2 months of strength and endurance exercise.  Our large study of 1,644 subjects who implemented the strength training guidelines by the American College of Sports Medicine reduced their resting blood pressure by almost 5 mmHg systolic, and about 2.5 mmHg diastolic after only 10 weeks of training.
Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 1.03.51 PMI have been strength training regularly for about five years.  During this time, I have been able to cut my blood pressure and cholesterol medications in half.  I find that my lower back pain is gone and that I have good strength, endurance, and flexibility for a 67 year old.  I highly recommend strength training!” …  Debbie Barrett, 67
Q. I have osteoporosis and I am worried that if I exercise I will experience bone fractures.   It keeps me from going to the gym.
Weak bones are more prone to fractures, so before engaging in an exercise program older adults should have a bone density scan to assess the disease severity.  Nevertheless, resistance training has been proven to strengthen the entire musculoskeletal system, especially the vulnerable areas of the hip, spine, and wrist in both men and women who have low bone density.  According to the Medicine in Science of Sports Exercise research journal, adults who do not perform resistance exercise may experience 1-3% reduction in bone density every year of life.  Fortunately, several studies have shown that resistance exercise is effective for increasing bone density, including our research with post-menopausal women who increased their bone density by 1% after just 9 months of strength training.
Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 1.47.24 PM“I have exercised for more than 35 years since I was first diagnosed with osteoporosis in my early 30’s.  My degree of osteoporosis has worsened over time.  At age 71, I was becoming very concerned.  There had to be a way of improving my bone density without taking a prescription drug.  I attended a lecture about the benefits of strength training and immediately signed up for the program.  Working with the fitness staff on an exercise program that included resistance training, after four months, my most recent bone density test showed an improvement in all three of the measured parameters.  This is the first time that my bone density has ever improved.  I am so thankful that I found strength training.” … Bonney Solomon, 71Q. Q. 
Q. Is Balance Training enough to prevent falls?
This is a great question!  Balance training is definitely beneficial in helping to prevent falls. Yet, accidents and falls can still occur if your muscles are weak.  Fall prevention programs are important, but they do not prevent muscle loss and strength decrease. However, engaging in a sensible resistance training program is advantageous to avoid or minimize risk of injury.  Resistance exercise strengthens the musculoskeletal system, which can prevent broken bones or even worse outcomes.  There are many strength training programs available for seniors to learn how to live a stronger and healthier life. Try your local fitness club, YMCA, or community health and fitness center.  There you will find certified professional trainers who can guide you through a safe, sensible, and effective resistance training program.  Two of our studies on this topic showed that 10 weeks of basic strength training improved standing balance between 35% and 50% in older adults.
Conclusive evidence reveals that resistance exercise is effective for improving health and fitness in men and women of all ages.  We have presented a few of the resistance training health benefits (there are actually many more) that should help you enjoy a more active lifestyle throughout your senior years.  We sincerely hope that these study results and real life stories will encourage you to begin a basic, brief, and sensible strength training program.
Wayne & Rita - They Took - Color - October 2015About the Authors

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., directs the Exercise Science Program at Quincy College and consults for the South Shore YMCA. He has authored 28 books on health and fitness. Rita La Rosa Loud directs the Health & Fitness Center at Quincy College and assists Dr. Westcott with their health-related research studies.
For information on Quincy College fitness programs, call Wayne or Rita at 617-984-1716.