Fiona McMahon PT, DPT
The idea of strength training can conjure up many images, like the funny images of Saturday Night Live’s Hans and Frans, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. It can also be intimidating. The idea of walking into a crowded weight room full of young and fit people, who seem to all know what they are doing can stop a newbie in their tracks. But resistance training has so many benefits, for health, function, and longevity. It goes way beyond looking good in a swimsuit, although it certainly can help with that. In honor of September’s Healthy Aging Month we at Beyond Basics are taking a close look at how adding a safe strength training regimen to one’s daily routine at any age, can boost so many indicators of health and quality of life.
Everyone understands that muscles are essential for everyday tasks like rising from a chair, carrying your shopping, and many other instrumental tasks required for independence. The thing about muscles is they are not static, and as we start to age we lose muscle, especially if we do not work to maintain our muscle mass. Believe it or not, we slowly start losing muscle mass at age 30, (bummer, I know), but after 60 is where things get really crazy. After age 60 we start losing muscle mass at a rate of approximately 15% per year. The less active someone is in their life, the quicker this loss occurs. Low muscle mass is called sarcopenia. You will see this term a lot in this blog. The condition of sacropenia brings with it functional impairments from lack of strength and can put a person in a position where they are more likely to require assistance for everyday tasks. Furthermore, when sarcopenia and obesity occur at the same time, which we often see in the elderly, the functional impairments associated with sarcopenia and obesity are greater than either sarcopenia or obesity alone.
But there is hope. Aging isn’t a slippery slope into weakness and frailty. It is what you make it. Even sarcopenic muscle can respond and strengthen in response to proper training. In fact, it adapts to the demands of strength training at the same rate as younger muscle. Weight training can actually reduce fat and build muscle, helping to reverse the condition of sarcopenic obesity. Many studies indicate that resistance training can prevent and or reverse age related losses in function. Even with all the benefits of strength training. Only an estimated 10-15% of older folks regularly participate in strength training exercise, leaving a huge percentage of the population missing out on strength training’s myriad benefits, which we will cover in more detail below.
Benefits of Strength Training
Balance and Fall Prevention
Falls are a serious cause of injury, disability, and death in the elderly. People over the age of 60 have a once yearly fall rate of approximately 30%. Resistance training in combination with balance training under the care of a skilled physical therapist can go a long way to reduce one’s risk of falls. If falling is a concern of yours, please check out our other blog on falls and fall prevention.
Pain symptoms in individuals with Fibromyalgia Syndrome improved following a 12 week high intensity strengthening program (Mayer).
Osteoporosis, a condition characterized by low bone density, increases a person’s risk of fracture. Fracture brings along with it risks of prolonged pain, depression, issues with function, subsequent fracture, and even death. Individuals with vertebral fracture have a 2.7 increased likelihood of death and are likely to have an additional fracture within a year of the original fracture.
There is evidence supporting resistance exercise as a useful tool to increasing bone density in osteoporotic individuals. With people with extreme cases of osteoporosis, there is increase risk of accidental fracture from dropped weights, poor form in transitions and adjusting weight machines. In these individuals, and all individuals for that matter, it is extremely important to work with a physical therapist to construct a safe and beneficial routine.
Many studies have found significant improvements in function following a resistance training program. Physical therapists like to use a few specific tests when getting a general idea of someone’s function. A couple of our favorites are the Timed Up and Go (TUG) and the 6 – Minute Walk Test. They measure the time it takes to rise from a chair and the amount of ground covered in six minutes, respectively. Pretty simple, right? In all of the studies I read that were using these outcomes, both TUG and 6-Minute Walk scores significantly improved following strengthening intervention. These tests are really special because they have incredibly strong correlations to functional independence and risk for falls and hospitalization. On top of improving scores in these tests, patient’s themselves also reported improved mobility in their daily lives.
Frequency and Duration
Out of the studies examined, most advised participating in a resistance routine 3-4x weekly in order to see an increase in muscle mass in 6-9 weeks. Continued training will sustain this effect. Most recommended 3-4 sets of 10 repetitions and 65-85% one rep max. Bands and free weights have found to be effective for strength training in older individuals. As stated before, exercise machines tend to have an increased risk of fracture in those with severe osteoporosis and therefore, should be avoided unless one is certain they can adjust the machine with correct form. Repetitions should be slow and controlled. Cardio and weight training are life long commitments.
So Where To Start?
The first place to stop is at your local and experienced physical therapy office. Your PT will be able to determine if you are safe to exercise and what types of exercise will work best for your body and your goals. Will exercise bands work better for you? What the heck is 80% one rep max? When can I progress? Am I doing this right? All of these questions will be answered by your physical therapist. At Beyond Basics Physical Therapy we work to not only improve strength, but also efficiency of movement to allow our patients to get the most from their time with us as well as their time spent doing resistance training. If you think weight training is right for you and are eager to get started, make a call to us at BBPT or to your local PT, to make an appointment today!
Chen M, Jiang B. Resistance training exercise program for intervention to enhance gait function in elderly chronically ill patients: multivariate multiscale entropy for center of pressure signal analysis. Comput Math Methods Med. 2014
Giangregorio G. Papaioannou A. MacIntyre N. Too fit to fracture: exercise recomendations for individuals with osteoporosis or osteoporotic vertebral fracture
Liao C, Tsauo J, Lin L, et al. Effects of elastic resistance exercise on body composition on body composition and physical capacitiy in older women with sacropenic obesity. Medicine. 2013. 96(23)
Mayer F, Scharhag-Rosenberger F, Carlsohn A. The intensity and effects of strength training in the elderly. Dtsch Arztebl Int 2011; 108(21):359-64