This Exercise Can Change the Trajectory of Aging and Physical Decline

This Exercise Can Change the Trajectory of Aging and Physical Decline

This Exercise Can Change the Trajectory of Aging and Physical Decline

Most older adults would agree that routine exercise provides several health benefits, including strengthening muscles, preventing or delaying illnesses, and increasing physical endurance.

Zachary Gillenan added one unique benefit: Creating special memories with loved ones that you might not have been able to have if you were not physically active. Gillenan, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at Mississippi State University, fondly remembers running two half-marathons with his father when he was in his 60s.

Gillenan and other health experts say a critical component that older adults can incorporate into their routine exercise program is strength training to build up their muscles. Strength training, also known as resistance training or weight training, can help adults remain physically active and improve their quality of life as they age.

Staying physically active does not mean that older adults must run marathons or turn into bodybuilders, according to Gillenan, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who designs exercise programs for children, college athletes, and elderly adults. Physical activity could be as simple as walking up a flight of stairs without feeling winded, carrying heavy bags of groceries, or picking up a grandchild.  

“As people age, it can become more and more difficult to perform some physical tasks, even those that are normal activities of daily living,” Gillenan wrote in an article for The Conversation. “However, prioritizing physical fitness and health as you get older can help you go through your normal day-to-day routine without feeling physically exhausted at the end of the day.”

What is Strength Training?

Strength training increases muscle strength by making your muscles work against a weight or force. For example, weightlifting is a popular strength training exercise that includes using dumbbells, barbells, weight machines, or resistance bands. You can also use your body weight for resistance by doing push-ups, pull-ups, squats, or lunges.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends older adults choose resistance training that works all the major muscle groups, such as legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms.
In addition, resistance machines are helpful for this activity. Gyms usually offer a variety of resistance machines, such as leg press machines and pulldown machines. Resistance machines are stable and have adjustable weights that only move in specific directions.

Frequency of Strength Training for Older Adults

So, how often should older adults do strength training?

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), a nonprofit professional organization that advances strength and conditioning around the world, recommends that older adults:

    • Do resistance training two to three times a week, with 24 to 48 hours between sessions.

    • Include eight to 10 exercises, such as shoulder press, chest press, biceps curl, lower-back extension, abdominal crunch, leg curl, and heel raises.

    • Attempt to complete two to three sets per major muscle group with two minutes of rest between sets.

It may be appropriate for older adults who are just starting resistance training to do single sets. The NSCA also recommends adapting training programs for older adults with disabilities or those residing in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities.

When it comes to overall physical activity, which includes strength training, the CDC says adults 65 and older need:

    • At least 150 minutes (for example, 30 minutes a day, five days a week) of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity, such as hiking, jogging, or running.

    • At least two days a week of activities that strengthen muscles.

    • Activities to improve balance include standing on one foot, walking heel-to-toe, or standing from a sitting position.

While research shows multiple benefits from resistance training, one study found that only about 13 percent of people aged 50 and over participate in strength training activities at least twice a week.

Strengthening Muscles Can Prevent Sarcopenia

Strength training is crucial since loss of muscle function occurs typically in the aging process. The involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function is called sarcopenia. This medical condition can begin as early as 40 years old but is more common in people 60 and older, according to Gillenan. Sarcopenia can lead to a wide range of problems, including an increased risk of falls and fractures, cognitive impairment, and cardiovascular disease.

Gillenan said that in one study his team conducted, they noticed that people with sarcopenia had difficulty supplying vital nutrients to their muscles despite their overall good health. This may increase the likelihood of developing chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, and delay recovery from exercise, Gillenan said.

Sarcopenia affects 10 percent to 16 percent of the elderly population worldwide, according to some estimates. But even without a clinical diagnosis, some people may still experience symptoms that could potentially develop into sarcopenia.

To prevent sarcopenia and other consequences of age-related muscle loss, Roger A. Fielding, a senior scientist and associate director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, encourages older adults to try strength training.

“When you do resistance or strength training, essential chains of molecules that relay signals between cells are affected, and these changes linger in the body for hours after exercise, building up a cumulative, positive effect,” Fielding told the National Institute for the Aging (NIA). “Even a low-intensity strength and walking program has substantial benefits.”

In his NIA-supported research, Fielding said he and his colleagues discovered how a combination of walking and resistance training helped older adults improve physical function and prevent disability.

“The most robust type of exercise training to prevent the loss of muscle strength and the loss of muscle mass is strength training,” Fielding said.

People who lose muscle mass and muscle strength are at risk for developing problems with their mobility, such as walking, getting up from a chair, and climbing stairs, Fielding said in an interview with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These changes can potentially cause seniors to lose their ability to live independently.

While older adults can follow recommended guidelines for strength training, Gillenan highly recommends contacting a professional who can tailor an exercise program that meets their needs.

To stay motivated with a new strength training program, Fielding recommends that older adults find something they like to do and make it part of their daily routine.

“If you’re somebody who absolutely loathes going to the gym, signing up for a gym membership is not going to be the right strategy for you,” Fielding told the NIH. “But getting some hand weights and some ankle weights that you can use at home, in a place where you’re very comfortable, maybe something that will get you motivated to start.”

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