Specialty Program - Youth

Resistance Training for the Elderly: the Overlooked Key to Longevity

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January 29, 2024

Resistance training for the elderly is not just about lifting weights; it's a vital tool for maintaining strength and independence. Being aerobically fit has often been the harbinger of longevity, while being strong and powerful has taken a backseat.

Being aerobically fit is important, but not at the risk of ignoring resistance training.

As we age, if we physically struggle to support ourselves, our priority between aerobic training or resistance training, should be resistance (strength and power) training.

Most of the activities of daily living that give us independence require strength and power MORE than cardiovascular endurance.

For example: standing up, sitting down, and climbing stairs all require strength and power and are things we need to do every day if we want an independent and fulfilled life.

Standing up requires strength and power, staying upright involves balance, and walking requires endurance.

This sequence follows a logic progression.

You must first stand before you walk.

If you cannot lift your body weight out of a chair how are you expected to go on a walk?

People are faced with this example every day and for those who struggle or want to improve their current state, resistance training can be vital to gaining overall functionality and independence.

Understanding Sarcopenia and Its Impact on Aging

What is Sarcopenia?

Sarcopenia refers to the age-related decline in muscle mass and strength. As individuals grow older, they naturally experience a reduction in muscle tissue.

According to the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, typically, muscle mass and strength increase steadily from birth and reach their peak at around 30 to 35 years of age. After that, muscle power and performance decline slowly and linearly at first, and then faster after age 65 for women and 70 for men.

Sarcopenia is not just about losing muscles; it also involves a decrease in muscle function. Older adults with sarcopenia may find it challenging to carry out tasks that require strength or mobility, such as standing up from a chair or climbing stairs. This condition significantly impacts their quality of life by limiting their ability to engage in social activities or even perform basic self-care tasks.

Resistance training has been shown to be effective in combating the effects of sarcopenia among older adults. By engaging in regular resistance training exercises, seniors can improve their muscular strength and endurance, thereby mitigating the impact of age-related muscle loss.

Effective Resistance Training Exercises for Older Adults

Focus on Low-Impact Exercises

Focusing on low-impact exercises is crucial. These exercises are gentle on the joints and reduce the risk of injury, making them ideal for older adults. Examples of low-impact resistance training include seated leg lifts, wall push-ups, and standing calf raises. These movements help build strength without putting excessive strain on the body.

Low-impact exercises also contribute to better balance and stability, which are essential for older adults in preventing falls and maintaining independence. By incorporating these exercises into a regular routine, seniors can improve their overall physical well-being while minimizing the impact on their joints.

Low-impact resistance training allows older adults with conditions such as arthritis or osteoporosis to engage in strength-building activities without exacerbating their existing health issues.

Incorporate Bodyweight Movements

Resistance training for older adults often involves incorporating bodyweight movements into their workout routines. Bodyweight exercises utilize the individual's own weight to provide resistance, making them accessible and effective for seniors.

Bodyweight movements such as squats, lunges, planks, and modified push-ups help strengthen major muscle groups while promoting flexibility and mobility. These exercises can be adapted to suit different fitness levels by adjusting range of motion or using supportive equipment like chairs or stability balls.

By integrating bodyweight movements into their exercise regimen, older adults can enhance muscular endurance and functional capacity essential for daily activities like walking, climbing stairs, or lifting objects.

Furthermore, adults who may have limitations in accessing gym equipment can still benefit from bodyweight exercises at home or in community settings without needing specialized gear.

Use Resistance Bands

Utilizing resistance bands is another effective approach to incorporate gentle yet impactful workouts into an individual's routine. Resistance bands offer adjustable levels of resistance that cater to varying strength levels while providing a safe way to challenge muscles without straining joints excessively.

Elderly man and woman doing a shoulder exercise with resistance bands
Photo by Yan Krukau

Safety Guidelines for Resistance Training Programs

Start Light

When initiating resistance training for the elderly, it's crucial to begin with light weights or resistance. This allows older adults to adapt gradually without overwhelming their muscles and joints. By starting with lighter weights, seniors can focus on mastering the correct form and technique, reducing the risk of injury.

It's important to remember that starting light doesn't mean sacrificing effectiveness. Seniors can still experience significant benefits from resistance training even when using lighter weights or minimal resistance. The emphasis should be on quality movements and proper execution rather than lifting heavy loads.

Progress Gradually

As older adults become more comfortable with their initial exercises, they can gradually progress the intensity of their resistance training regimen. This progression should occur at a pace that allows them to adapt without risking strain or injury. For example, increasing the number of repetitions, adding slightly heavier weights, or incorporating more challenging variations of exercises are all ways in which seniors can progressively intensify their workouts.

By gradually progressing intensity, older adults minimize the likelihood of overexertion and reduce the potential for muscle soreness or strain. It's essential for seniors to listen to their bodies and not push themselves too hard too quickly as they advance through their resistance training program.

Incorporating Resistance Training into Exercise Routines

Frequency of Workouts

The duration of exercise may start at 5–10 minutes (or less) during the first weeks of training and progress to 20–30 minutes in the long term.

A minimum of one day of rest is recommended between sessions involving the same muscle groups to allow time for the muscles to recover.

Perform 2–3 times per week, starting with 1–2 sets and progressing to 2–3 sets of 8–12 repetitions. The resistance exercises should target major muscle groups of the upper and lower body involved in function and mobility. 6-10 exercises.

Resistance training should be complemented by activities such as walking, or swimming to enhance cardiovascular endurance.

In 2023 The American Heart Association released a similar statement:

Resistance training not only can improve or maintain muscle mass and strength, but also has favorable physiological and clinical effects on cardiovascular disease and risk factors. This scientific statement is an update of the previous (2007) American Heart Association scientific statement regarding resistance training and cardiovascular disease. Since 2007, accumulating evidence suggests resistance training is a safe and effective approach for improving cardiovascular health in adults with and without cardiovascular disease.

You've learned about the profound impact of resistance training for older adults, combating the effects of sarcopenia and enhancing overall well-being. By incorporating safe and effective resistance exercises, seniors can improve muscle mass, strength, and functional abilities, ultimately leading to a more independent and fulfilling lifestyle.

Now it's time to take action.

To ensure safety and effectiveness, before starting any program, it is wise to consult with experts who will consider your individual needs and health conditions.

By prioritizing resistance training you will experience a well-rounded fitness routine that will provide you critical healthy returns for years to come.

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