April 5, 2018

Strength Training Can Benefit Seniors

Aches, pains and weight gain seem to be inevitable as we age. And we can no longer seem to do the things we used to – whether it’s eat like we did in our 20s or even – some days – make it up the stairs without feeling winded. But the good news is that a slow decline isn’t inevitable.

“With a game plan, weight gain can be minimized even in our 50s and beyond” says Kate Hemesath, UW Health Sports Medicine fitness supervisor.

Holding on to excess pounds as we age can be a problem – that excess weight can lead to a loss of mobility and ultimately of independence. The more uncomfortable it is to move because knees or hips hurt, the less likely we are to move, which adds to the problem.

Why Strength Training Helps

She explains that the main reason for the weight gain as we age is that we lose lean muscle mass. Muscle burns a greater amount of calories than fat, which is why our metabolisms start to slow (and why we can’t eat like we did in our 20s). We lose strength and even balance. The reality is that we know what it takes to counteract the process – eating a clean, healthy, lean diet and exercise. And while cardio is important, it’s actually the weight training that’s really the key.

“Strength training is one of the most effective ways to burn fat while simultaneously building muscle. It has also been shown to halt and even reverse sarcopenia – the reduction of skeletal muscle that occurs as we get older – which helps us stay independent and live longer,” says Hemesath.

She notes that it’s important to check with a physician before undertaking any new exercise routines. And a high-intensity routine is not necessary. Strength training two times per week for generally healthy seniors is the recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine. And, she offers a few guidelines:

  • Strength training should be completed between moderate (5-6) and vigorous (7-8) intensities on a scale of 0-10.

  • The routine should include 8-10 exercises involving the major muscle groups; 1 set of 10-15 repetitions each.

Including core exercises to improve balance and stability is vital in gaining strength and reducing the risk of falls.

“It is also imperative to include exercises that mimic daily activities in order to build functional fitness-strength that seniors can use on a daily basis,” Hemesath says. Think about lifting a grocery bag of food and carrying it up steps – it’s a simple activity but one that requires a certain amount of strength, balance and coordination.

Start Slowly and Listen to Your Body

And what about those aches and pains? Some days walking can be uncomfortable. Hemesath says exercise is essential, but acknowledges that knowing how much activity to do when hurting can be difficult.

“Research has shown that moderate activity can help prevent the progression of arthritis and improve overall function, but while mild muscle soreness after a workout is normal, sharp pain during or immediately after can signal injury,” she explains.

It is best to start with some gentle, active range of motion movements and if that feels OK, Hemesath suggests progressing to joint specific strengthening, adding, “resistance training in a warm water pool is also a great way for those suffering from arthritis to maintain their strength training regimen.”

For those that might be tempted by the 7-minute promise of HIIT – or High Intensity Interval Training – a combination of weight and cardio movements, Hemesath says that can actually be okay – but only for those who are already active. “Assuming there are no underlying health issues, and there is a decent degree of fitness to start, a HIIT method may be appropriate. However, I would definitely discourage it for out-of-shape or overweight beginners.”

Speaking of which, while it can be tempting to try exercising like we did in our 30s, Hemesath says the most important thing is to listen to our bodies. To help, she recommends using the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. “Someone who is exercising, should evaluate how they feel in the days following theirexercise routine. Extreme soreness is not the goal, but feeling a little soreness in the muscles that were worked is an indicator that training was effective.”

Consider a Fitnes Center Class

The Fitness Center offers a variety of classes to help you meet your fitness goals. Consider adding a Strength and Flexibility class this winter. 

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