Marsha, age 72, leaves her doctor’s office with a smile on her face, amused that the physician’s assistant — amazed by Marsha’s double digit weight loss and low blood pressure — just accused her of showing off. Lorri’s doctor is similarly impressed by her health. He can’t believe 60 year old Lorri has dropped weight, lowered her blood pressure, and eliminated her back pain, all without the use of medication.
Both Marsha and Lorri have discovered the secret to healthy aging, a secret long borne out by research. Marsha and Lorri know that increasing strength and maintaining muscle mass promotes longevity and improves overall health, and they are part of the 13.7 percent of Americans, aged 50 or older, who strength train at least twice per week.
Unfortunately, the other 86.3% of Americans slow down just as they should get started. Progressive strength training has shown promising results in combating the common maladies that come with aging, even in adults older than 60.
Strength training dramatically improves, or even reverses, bone loss. Strength training is effective in managing the chronic pain associated with arthritis and back problems. Progressive strength training also helps stave off cognitive declines and combats insulin resistance. It improves balance, coordination, and spacial awareness reducing the risk of falls, and strength training can even extend your life.
Extend Your Life.
Yes, you read that right. Strength training can extend your life.
“Use it or lose it” is the common aphorism when it comes to healthy aging, so of course, we all know that strength training improves muscle tone, prevents muscle atrophy, and helps boost metabolism. But, did you also know that strength training increases longevity? Researchers at UCLA found that senior citizens with more muscle mass were less likely to die prematurely than senior citizens with low muscle mass.
Or, to sum it up, in a second simple aphorism: stay stronger, live longer.
You can get the life-extending benefits of strength training in as little as two hours per week. The average American spends two hours per day watching television, so consider supplementing a few of your favorite television programs with a few strength training sessions. And, thanks to your new training plan, you’ll be around to find out who’s Dancing with the Stars next season.
Fortify Your Bones
In the 1980s, the dairy industry capitalized on what mothers had been saying for decades. Milk, indeed, did a body good, and moms across America poured glass after glass of the mustache-inducing beverage for their children in an effort to help their offspring grow big and strong. But, milk isn’t the only way to ensure healthy bones, and if those same 1980s moms, now approaching late middle age, would invest a few hours per week in a strength training regimen, they could save themselves from the debilitating effects of bone loss.
Osteoblasts and osteoclasts, two different types of bone cells, work in tandem to maintain a healthy skeleton. Osteoblasts create new bone while osteoclasts break down old bone. Think of osteoblasts as the renovating crew and osteoclasts as the demolition team. In women, estrogen tends to inhibit osteoclast activity, keeping osteoblasts and osteoclasts in balance which helps retain bone density.
Due to the loss of estrogen associated with menopause, postmenopausal women lose the protective benefits of estrogen, placing them at higher risk for bone density loss when osteoclasts start absorbing bone tissue faster than osteoblasts can replace it. And, guys, I know you tend to shut down when you start hearing estrogen talk, but don’t start thinking you’re off the hook. When it comes to bone loss, testosterone acts as a protectant in men just as estrogen does in women, and men face similar hormonal declines with increasing age, just as women do.
Osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis, affects half of Americans over age 50. Like osteoporosis, osteopenia is characterized by low bone density. Often, there are no symptoms, and many people don’t realize how weak their bones are until they break one. And, at an advanced age, one broken bone can adversely change your life. Walking, driving, and even feeding yourself can become difficult, if not impossible, tasks, and a broken bone can result in chronic pain, disability, and even a loss of independence.
And, don’t be so quick to reach for that bottle of Fosamax just yet. Bone density meds don’t increase the body’s production of osteoblasts. Instead, they dampen the activity of osteoclasts. In essence, you’re not hiring additional builders; you’re just furloughing your demolition crew. So, while bone isn’t being resorbed, it’s also not being repaired which is why even while taking bone density medication, bones continue to become increasingly brittle and are increasingly prone to fractures and breaking.
Rather than get caught up in the Catch-22 of bone pharmacopeia, try strength training. Strength training, specifically high-intensity resistance training, can not only help you retain bone mineral density but increase it. High-intensity resistance training, with proper recovery periods, has been shown in research studies to halt bone deterioration and stimulate bone growth, especially in seniors.
Strength: it does a body good!
Preserve Your Brain
Sir Norman Wisdom famously quipped, “As you get older, three things happen. The first is your memory goes, and I can’t remember the other two.”
Forgetfulness is one of the most common cognitive declines associated with aging, and few prospects are more frightening than dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Increasing age is also associated with a decrease in the ability to maintain focus and a decrease in problem solving ability. If only there was a way to keep your mind in shape.
Oh, but there is.
Exercise not only keeps your body fit; it also trains your brain. A new study shows that strength training may be able to slow dementia. Senior participants in a study conducted by the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility at Vancouver Coastal Health and the University of British Columbia Archives of Internal Medicine took part in an exercise program. The researchers found that strength training, specifically resistance training, can alter the trajectory of cognitive decline in seniors.
Strength training “significantly improved” the participants’ attention, problem solving ability, and associative memory, so if Sir Norman can commit to a weekly strength training program, he should be able to tell us the other two things we can expect as we get older.
Ease Arthritis Pain
Maybe one of those two things is arthritis, the bane of the elderly. Anyone afflicted with this disease will tell you that arthritis is a pain in the…, well, joints. And, the pain caused by inflamed and swollen joints interferes with the most basic of daily tasks, from brushing your teeth to walking across the room, compromising mobility and independence. But, recent studies have shown that strength training could offer hope for arthritis sufferers.
Researchers at Tufts University had elderly men and women with moderate to severe osteoarthritis complete a sixteen week strength training program. The participants increased their muscle strength and showed a marked decrease in their arthritis symptoms. Most importantly, their pain decreased by an incredible 43%, fantastic news for those afflicted with arthritis.
Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), maintaining a healthy body weight has been shown to decrease the risk of developing osteoarthritis. As well, protecting joints from injuries and overuse also reduces the risk of arthritis. Strength training can improve joint health and help you develop lean, fat burning muscle, a key in maintaining an appropriate body weight.
Lower Your Risk of Falls
Visit any retirement community, and one of the chief concerns you’ll hear the residents mention, in regards to their health, is the fear of taking a fall. And, that fear is justified. Seniors have a disproportionately higher risk for falls, and those falls are often accompanied by a broken bone or serious head injury, along with all the havoc those health crises entail.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) cites muscle weakness, especially muscle weakness in the legs, as the biggest contributor to falls in seniors. Balance issues are a close second with sensory problems also making the list.
All of which can be improved with strength training.
During a twelve week study period, researchers investigated the effectiveness of leg strengthening exercises in individuals aged 65 and over. The individuals in the training group not only significantly increased their lower limb strength but also improved their balance and coordination when compared to the lazy baseline group (just kidding, all good studies need a baseline group for comparison; it’s not the participants’ fault they were randomly assigned to the group that couch surfed instead of performed leg presses though I’m sure upon hearing the results, the baseline group signed up for their own strength training program).
An appropriate strength training program can be an effective means to preserving, or even improving, coordination, spatial awareness, and reaction time for seniors. Of course, even more important than better balance, is the decreased risk of a fall. Avoiding a fall, and a fall’s associated injuries, helps seniors maintain their health and independence, important factors in life satisfaction and healthy aging.
Back Pain Reduction
Back pain proves that misery loves company. Nearly 80% of Americans are subject to occasional back pain while one third of seniors suffer from chronic back problems. It seems our keyboard-pecking, hunched-over, high-stress, tight-shouldered lifestyle is starting to catch up with us.
However, numerous studies show that weight training and other strengthening exercises can help mitigate back pain.
One such sixteen week study, presented at the American College of Sports Medicine, examined 240 patients with chronic back pain resulting from a soft tissue injury (none of the patients had back surgery, damaged vertebra, or problems with their spinal nerve roots). The patients undertook a strength training program, slowly building up to higher weights and gradually increasing their number of repetitions.
After just three weeks, the researchers noticed a decrease in the patients’ pain corresponding to the patients’ increase in strength. The results?
■ 28% decrease in pain for patients who exercised four times per week
■ 18% decrease in pain for patients who exercised three times per week
■ 14% decrease in pain for patients who exercised two times per week
Seeing those results, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the patients’ quality of life, defined, for the purpose of this study, as a person’s physical and mental well-being, respectively increased by 16-28%.
Improve Your Insulin Response and Lower Your Risk of Diabetes
What do obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia (elevated fat in your bloodstream), liver disease, sleep apnea, and cancer have in common? All are associated with insulin resistance, a condition in which the body develops a tolerance for its own insulin, requiring that your pancreas pump more and more insulin into your body to achieve the same glucose-absorbing effect. Eventually, the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to keep up with the body’s demand, leading to dangerously high blood sugar levels. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like diabetes, you’re right. Insulin resistance is a precursor to Type II diabetes. And, if you think obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia, liver disease, sleep apnea, and cancer sound bad enough, you should also know that insulin resistance also predisposes you to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
The good news (yes, there is good news) is that lifting weights lowers your risk of insulin resistance and diabetes. Consistent weight training improves the sensitivity of insulin receptors which allows muscle cells to absorb glucose more easily. Even better news? This happens almost immediately after exercising with weights, and the effect can last for days. And, since lean muscle is particularly insulin sensitive tissue, as you build more muscle over time, insulin sensitivity improves.
What if you already have diabetes? Well, strength training has good news for you, too. In a ten week study, diabetics in a strength training group were compared to diabetics in a group that ran on a treadmill. At the study’s completion, the strength training group had a greater reduction in blood glucose levels and their HbA1c levels (medical-speak for glycohemoglobin test, the test used to assess how well diabetes is being controlled) were significantly lower than the group on the treadmill.
So, take note all you diehard runners; it’s time you learned to love weights.
Get The Best Results With a Well-Designed Program
Progressive strength training programs are a mix of exercises designed to gradually increase muscle mass and improve strength, and the programs have shown positive results for young adults, senior citizens, and all age groups in between. A progressive strength training program usually starts with lightweight training, and in time, the weights are slowly increased to promote muscle mass. Seniors are more prone to injury as their muscle and skeletal systems are generally weaker than their younger counterparts, so progressive strength training is especially beneficial as its gradual program helps alleviate the potential injuries that other “all-in” workouts can impose.
The exercises used in progressive strength training are focused on increasing flexibility and improving range of motion while reducing the risk of injuries. Kettlebells are commonly used in performing these simple yet effective exercises. Squats, overhead shoulder presses, and kettlebell swings yield excellent results when properly used in progressive strength training, not to mention kettlebells are fun and help combat workout boredom. However, kettlebells do require proper training and practice in order to use them safely, and for most people just starting a strength training program, flexibility and range of motion in the joints may limit the movements they can perform initially. But, just learning the movements without weights still provides an excellent workout and allows the new participant to improve their mobility and flexibility. Weights can then gradually be added to the program, and before you know it, you’re reaping the benefits of a progressive strength training program.
Many of the studies reviewed in this article indicated that workout intensity matters as high-intensity resistance exercises yielded slightly greater increases in bone mineral density, lean muscle mass, and muscle strength. Like moderate intensity strength training, high intensity strength training also requires proper instruction and adherence to safety, but so long as the strength training is correctly progressed, high intensity workouts are safe and beneficial for most seniors and can improve musculoskeletal health. Again, however, progression needs to be emphasized in order to prevent overtraining and possible injuries; the higher the workout’s intensity, the higher the risk of injury for untrained individuals.
For the most part, strength-training exercises—especially if you start conservatively and progress slowly—are safe for most seniors, even those with health conditions. But, before beginning a strength training program, you should talk to your doctor about what type of fitness program is appropriate for you, especially if you are currently inactive, elderly, hypertensive, have a musculoskeletal injury or disease, or have any other health concern. As seniors have unique health needs, it’s best to hire a personal trainer that has experience working with older adults. A personal trainer will also help you revamp your eating habits to maximize your training.
Now that you know that progressive strength training is safe and effective for you, it’s time to get started with a program. Join the ForeverStrong program and train to manage physical pain, prevent bone loss and cognitive decline, decrease your risk of falls, and fight back against insulin resistance and diabetes. You’ll find yourself living a longer, and healthier, life.
Hey, don’t just take my word for it! For more information on healthy aging through strength training, check out these exciting research studies:
1. Maddalozzo, G.F., and Snow, C.M. 2000. High intensity resistance training: Effects on bone in older men and women. Calcified Tissue International, 66, 399-404.
2. Lindsay S. Nagamatsu, MA et al. Resistance Training Promotes Cognitive and Functional Brain Plasticity in Seniors With Probable Mild Cognitive Impairment. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(8):666-668. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.379.
3. Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter, (1994). Never too late to build up your muscle. 12: 6-7 (September).
4. 1: Fragala MS, Beyer KS, Jajtner AR, Townsend JR, Pruna GJ, Boone CH, Bohner JD, Fukuda DH, Stout JR, Hoffman JR. Resistance Exercise May Improve SpatialAwareness and Visual Reaction in Older Adults. J Strength Cond Res. 2014Aug;28(8):2079-2087. PubMed PMID: 24832975.
5. In-Hee Lee, PT, PhD1 and Sang-young Park, PT, PhD2. Balance Improvement by Strength Training for the Elderly. J Phys Ther Sci. Dec 2013; 25(12): 1591–1593.
6. Kell, Robert T1; Asmundson, Gordon J G2. A Comparison of Two Forms of Periodized Exercise Rehabilitation Programs in the Management of Chronic Nonspecific Low-Back Pain. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. March 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 2 – pp 513-523
7. Salameh Bweir1 et al., Resistance exercise training lowers HbA1c more than aerobic training in adults with type 2 diabetes Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome 2009, 1:27 doi:10.1186/1758-5996-1-27. Published: 10 December 2009
8. Preethi Srikanthan, Arun S. Karlamangla. Muscle Mass Index As a Predictor of Longevity in Older Adults. The American Journal of Medicine, Vol. 127, Issue 6, p547–553