Senior Living: Weightlifting in the Golden Years

When done properly, strength training can have tremendous benefits for seniors.

Richard Foley of McLean says he hits the gym at 7:30 five mornings a week. He spends about 40 minutes lifting weights followed by 40 minutes of walking on the treadmill and 10 minutes of sit-ups and crunches.

“I’ve always been physically active,” he said. “I’ve actually slowed down a little, but it's important to me to keep going for as long as I can.”

A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study of Americans over the age of 60 showed that strength training, such as lifting weights, reduced the risk of osteoporosis and chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. It also found that strength-training exercises has the ability to increase muscles strength and mass and allows seniors to stay mobile longer, while also combating weakness and frailty.

“Improving and increasing the muscles in your legs for example, makes them stronger, which means that you’ll be able to maintain your ability to walk without assistance longer than you might otherwise,” said Rita Days, RN, a gerontological nurse in Falls Church who was not involved in the study. “For seniors who enjoy traveling, shopping or any activity that requires walking, having strong quadricep and hamstring muscles means that you’ll be able to enjoy those activities longer. It also means that you’ll have the strength and endurance to navigate difficult terrain during vacations and other activities that involve walking.

Strength training can lead to a sense of independence for everyday activities like grocery shopping or even getting up from a chair, says Jay Rader, a private health and fitness coach based in Arlington. “When you strengthen the muscles around your joints, you can prolong and even improve your range of motion,” he said.

Weight training for seniors, says Days, comes with caveats. “Just because it’s beneficial doesn’t mean that an 89-year-old should go out and start trying to lift 50 pound weights so that he can regain the ability to walk up three flights of stairs like he could 30 years ago,” she said. “The benefits of strength training are tremendous, but they also come with risks and must be done safely. You should definitely consult with a doctor before beginning any kind of exercise program, and it would be my strong recommendation that any one over the age of 50 hire a personal trainer if they’re starting any kind of exercise program.”

In fact, David Schwartz, a personal trainer in Bethesda says that he has four clients who are over the age of 60, and while he personalizes each client’s workout, there are specific exercises that are particularly beneficial to seniors. “I have one client who is 72 and began training with me when she was 68,” he said. “The workouts that I do with her include lunges and squats which strengthen the quadriceps, or the muscles in the thigh area. It’s been interesting to watch her gain leg strength and be able to walk longer distances. But strengthening the quads can also protect your knees and prevent injuries and other problems.”

The bicep and tricep muscles of the arm are also important to building strength. “All you need are a pair of light to medium weight dumbbells,” said Kat Chetrit, a personal trainer in Fairfax. “Two great exercises, that are also relatively simple are bicep curls where you hold the weight in your hand and bend your arm at the elbow and curl the weight in the direction of your shoulder; and hammer curls, which are very similar except that you hold the weight like you would a hammer. Those are both great exercises for maintaining arm strength.”

Days, however, underscores the fact that there are risks involved “You can strain a muscle or drop a weight on yourself or even fracture a bone,” she said. “With the elderly, these injuries can take a longer time to heal than they would in a person who is much younger. The benefits definitely outweigh the risks, but you want to be safe and smart. That includes talking with your doctor and getting help from a personal training, especially if you’ve never or rarely exercised before.”

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