Three women on tennis court

Resistance and Strength Training for Adults over 55

By Katrina Wolf

Is your exercise program enough?

As the baby boomers age, the number of adults over 55 is growing rapidly. They call it “The Silver Tsunami.” I’ve worked with aging adults over the last 22 years and there is definitely a shift in mindset in the baby boomer generation. For one, they are more proactive about their health and more likely to participate in exercise and physical activity. This is wonderful, but is this age group getting the right kind of physical activity.

Drive by any senior living community or suburban neighborhood on a nice day and you will see people out walking. Walking is great exercise, it burns calories, improves aerobic conditioning and its functional … but walking is not enough. The ACSM recommends 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity a day – that’s 30 minutes five times a week. They also recommend strength training a minimum of two days a week and to incorporate balance training as well.

Benefits of Strength Training for Older Adults

We begin to lose muscle mass in our 30s and the process only speeds up as we age – exponentially for those who are sedentary. Strength training has been shown to not only help older adults live longer, but also to improve their quality of life, with benefits such as:

  • Improved strength
  • Improved muscle mass
  • Improved physical function
  • Improved management, or lowered risk of developing, such chronic health conditions as diabetes and osteoporosis
  • Better management of such conditions as low back pain and obesity

Despite this, some surveys report that only 9 percent of older adults participate in some sort of regular strength training. And these recommendations are not just for healthy active aging adults – the same holds true for frail adults as well. There is even evidence that improved diet along with strength training can reverse frailty in older adults.

What types of Strength Training?

The ACSM recommends 8-10 strength training exercise with 10-15 repetitions (reps) per exercise. These exercises should address all the muscle groups. To reap the long-term benefit for strength training, the program should be progressive. This means you need to make it harder. The last two to three reps of each exercise should be somewhat difficult – if you are completing 15 reps easily, you need to increase the weight. That means put those 2-pound pink weights away!! Strength training can include:

  • free weights or weight machines
  • resistance bands
  • bodyweight exercises (good old counter push-ups!!)

Is Strength Training OK for Everyone?

With a few unusual exceptions, I would say YES!!! Always check with your doctor before starting any kind of new exercise program, and if you have any health conditions, such as arthritis or cardiac conditions, check with your doctor to see if you have any lifting restrictions. However, I am here to tell you that strength training is beneficial at most any age. I have been working with a client for the past year who is 95 years old, about 4’11”, and maybe 90 pounds. When we started, she could lift a one-pound weight and needed frequent rest breaks. Today we are using three-pound weights, she’s moved up three levels in resistance bands, takes only two breaks, and her family is even considering traveling with her cross country to visit family because she is functioning so much better. The focus of her program has been strength and balance training. And I don’t feel she is an exception. Many seniors out there have the same potential given the right guidance.

Where to Start?

Start with a medical clearance from your doctor to be sure exercise is safe for you. There are actually very few instances where exercise in contraindicated. Once cleared there are several avenues you can take.

  • Check out your local senior center – they often have low-cost exercise programs, but make sure you are advancing your weight or resistance to get the most benefit.
  • Youtube.com has tons and tons of videos of exercise programs and yes, they have videos geared to seniors
  • Consider joining your local gym. Most gyms offer a few free sessions with a personal trainer to get you started and make sure you are using proper form.
  • Check out your community or apartment gym. The community you live in may have a great fitness facility and maybe even classes.
  • Try personal training. Now as a personal trainer, I am biased here. But I do believe it’s a good investment to make sure you are using a program that’s right for you and that you are progressing appropriately to get the most benefit. Make sure you research the trainer you are considering. Are they certified by a reputable organization, like ACSM, NASM, and ACE? Are they experienced in working with adults over 55? Look for a certified Senior Fitness Specialist or someone with a proven track record working with seniors. Ask for references specifically from other seniors or family.

Strength training should be a corner stone of any fitness program, but it is especially important for adults over 55 in order to remain strong and independent as they age.

Katrina Wolf is an ACSM-certified personal trainer since 2018. She also is a licensed Physical Therapy Assistant since 1997 with a passion for working with older adults and people with disabilities or chronic medical conditions. Agewell Senior fitness is her dream of helping people continue their recovery through guided exercise program with personal training after finishing their physical therapy. 

Find out more at her website www.agewellseniorfitness.com

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