Oct 22

Senior Health: Strength Training

by Jessica Stonefield

When it comes to exercising for health, longevity and greater quality of life, what comes to mind? Walking or perhaps jogging? Maybe swimming or biking?

While these aerobic forms of exercise bring many benefits, strength training is becoming increasingly recognized as a means to stay healthy as we get older. Strength training, also known as weight lifting or resistance training, reduces the risk of nearly every age-related disease.

First, let’s look at the most obvious. Strength training is essential for controlling weight and reducing our risk of weight-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. But how does strength training control weight? Doesn’t cardiovascular exercise burn more calories?

You have probably heard of (or even experienced) the inevitable slowdown in metabolism as we age. This decline is due to the breakdown of muscle mass in our bodies. Muscle, just by its existence in our bodies, increases metabolism slightly. More muscle on your body also means your body is “leaner,” lowering your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

What’s even more significant is the increase in one’s ability to perform nearly all other types of exercise, because of the increased strength. Simply, you can do more at a higher intensity. For example, you will be able to walk faster and farther by including a strength training component to your routine. This is why the American Heart Association now recommends strength training as part of a program to prevent and treat heart disease.

Strength training, more so than cardiovascular training, also decreases one’s risk of injury. A well-designed program will improve your muscle synergy (the way your muscles work together) and develop strength to support your joints. In turn, you improve your balance and coordination, reducing the your injury risk.

If you have had physical therapy for a past injury, regular strength training is the perfect way to prevent the same injury from happening in the future. And if you are still in the process of physical therapy, make sure your therapist approves your strength training program before you begin. Your therapist may even have a good recommendation for a personal trainer to design your program, and help you work through it.

Like muscle loss, bone loss is natural after a certain age (around 20 to 30). Low estrogen levels in pre- and post-menopausal women may add to the weakening. Only weight-bearing exercises, including strength training, help prevent bone loss. Just twice per week can slow or sometimes even stop the weakening of bones.

Pumping iron has positive effects on mental health, too, particularly with regard to depression. Interestingly, intensity may be directly related to benefit. A study posted in the Jounals of Gerontology in 2005 states that, “High-intensity progressive resistance training is more effective than is low-intensity PRT or general practitioner care for the treatment of older depressed patients.” In other words, the harder you pump, the better it works. Just remember to start slow and build from there.

Some other conditions benefiting from regular strength training are arthritis, back pain, dementia and sleep difficulties. Let’s not underestimate the aesthetic value, as well. Most of us would love to “firm up” a little (or a lot). Building even a small layer of muscle helps give a firmer appearance to skin, and adds shape and definition to the body.

So what kind of strength training should you do? The traditional lifting weights and counting repetitions is not your only option. Body weight exercises, in which you don’t use any extra weight, are also very effective. Yoga and pilates can greatly improve strength, especially in the core. Resistance bands are inexpensive, take up very little space, and can be very effective. They also travel well. Whatever you choose, remember to start easy, and increase your intensity slowly over time. To increase intensity, lift more weight, do more repetitions or make reps last longer. Do this over the course of three to six weeks. Then change your routine, and start building again.

As you begin your strength training program, it is best to seek expert advice. If possible, hire a personal trainer for a few sessions or attend a beginner class. When hiring a personal trainer, look for someone with experience working with seniors or with any health issues you may have. Ask friends, co-workers, or even gyms to recommend someone who would be right for you. Don’t feel nervous or intimidated to ask any questions. Contrary to the stereotypical “gym rats,” most personal trainers are used to coaching beginners as part of their jobs.

If weight loss is your goal, you might consider a reputable program, such as the Be Your Best Diabetes Prevention Program at Missoula City-County Health Department, which includes exercise instruction and resources. Keep in mind that the best exercise programs include both cardiovascular exercise and strength training.

As with anything, the hardest part is starting. I dare you to try a new form of strength training this week. Go on, what do have to lose? You have strength to gain.

Jessica Stonefield, pubic health nutritionist, provides nutrition services through the Be Your Best Diabetes Prevention Program and can be reached at 258-4935 or at jstonefield@co.missoula.mt.us.

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