By Wayne L. Westcott, Ph. D. and Rita La Rosa Loud
Quincy – You have probably heard that seniors should perform regular muscle-building exercise. But why?
The reason is because men and women lose 5 to 7 pounds of muscle tissue every decade of life, beginning at about age 25. In other words, regardless of bodyweight, a 65 year-old who has not done strength training has 20 to 28 pounds less muscle than desirable. Because muscle loss leads to bone loss, lower metabolism and less strength, this situation should be changed as quickly as possible. But how?
The best way to replace muscle lost though the aging process is a basic program of strength exercise. The rules are simple: (1) Use weights that you can lift at least eight times but not more than 12 times in succession; (2) When you can perform 12 good repetitions, increase the resistance by about five percent; (3) Use controlled lifting movements (about three seconds each) and lowering movements (about three seconds each); (4) Exhale during lifting movements and inhale during lowering movements; (5) Train two or three non-consecutive days a week; (6) Perform one set each of a few exercises that address the major muscle groups.
So what exercises should be included in a sensible senior strength-training program?
Based on our 25 years of research with older adults, including the landmark study with elderly nursing home residents, I recommend a highly effective and time-efficient workout called theBig Five Strength Exercises for Seniors. These five exercises condition most of the major muscles of the body, and are easily accessible at almost all YMCAs, JCCs, fitness centers, and health clubs. Although qualified fitness professionals will assist you in properly performing these exercises, here are the basic instructions.
(1) Leg Press: This comprehensive lower body exercise concurrently works the front thigh, rear thigh and hip muscles. Place your feet hip-width apart on the panel and adjust the seat so that your knees form a 90-degree angle. Hold the handgrips and exhale as you push the panel forward until the knees are almost fully extended. Return slowly to the starting position, and repeat for eight to 12 repetitions.
(2) Chest Press: The chest press strengthens the chest, front shoulder and rear arm muscles. Begin with the handles at mid-chest level, and exhale as you push them forward until the elbows are almost fully extended. Return slowly to the starting position, and repeat for eight to 12 repetitions.
(3) Seated Row: The seated row addresses the upper back, rear shoulder and front arm muscles simultaneously. Sit with your chest against the pad, grip the handles with your arms parallel to the floor, and exhale as you pull the hands backward to your chest. Return slowly to the starting position, and repeat for eight to 12 repetitions.
(4) Low Back Extension: Without question the most important exercise for seniors, the low back extension strengthens the lower back muscles. Adjust the seat so that the back pad contacts the thickest section of your upper back, and adjust the feet platform so that your knees are about an inch above the seat. Secure both seat belts to maintain a stable lower body during performance of the exercise, and cross your arms over your chest. Extend your torso backward as far as comfortable while exhaling. Return slowly to the forward-flexed starting position, and repeat for eight to 12 repetitions.
(5) AbdominalCurl: This machine works the midsection muscles much more effectively than any of the sit-up type exercises. Adjust the seat so that the back pad contacts the thickest section of your upper back, place your elbows on the arm pads and grip the handles. Curl your torso downward as far as comfortable while exhaling. Return slowly to the backward-extended starting position, and repeat for eight to 12 repetitions.
Although it should require only 10 minutes to complete this strength-training program, these five exercises address the major muscles of the legs, midsection, upper body and arms. Doing essentially the same five exercises, the 90-year old nursing home patients in our research study added four pounds of muscle, lost three pounds of fat, and increased their overall strength by 60 percent after just 14 weeks of twice a week training. Younger seniors should experience even better results, so give it a try. You can’t make a better health and fitness investment than 10 minutes of strength training, two or three days a week.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., teaches exercise science at Quincy College and consults for the South Shore YMCA. He has authored 28 books on strength training. Rita La Rosa Loud, B.S., directs the Health & Fitness Center located at Quincy College and is a Master Fitness Trainer.