It is estimated that by the year 2030 the number of individuals the age of 65 and over will reach 70 million in the U.S. alone; persons the age of 85 and older will be the fastest growing segment of the population. Thus, as more individuals live longer, it is imperative to determine which exercise and physical activities can improve health, functional capacity, quality of life and independence of this increasing population.
During the past several years, many studies have heightened the health value of strength training for aging adults. Research at the University of Maryland has shown that strength training is effective for improving glucose metabolism, increasing bone mineral density, and speeding up gastrointestinal transit. While Studies at Tufts University have demonstrated that strength-training exercise adds lean tissue, increases resting metabolism, and reduces arthritic discomfort. Extensive work at the University of Florida has shown that strength training increases low back strength and alleviates low back pain and improves balance and coordination.
Strength is an important factor for functional abilities. Muscle weakness can advance until an elderly person cannot do common activities of daily living, such as household tasks, getting out of a chair, sweeping the floor, or taking out the trash. Reduced functional ability may result in nursing home placement. Because sarcopenia (loss of muscle due to aging) and muscle weakness may be an almost universal characteristic of advancing age, strategies of preserving or increasing muscle mass in older adult should be implemented. Maintaining strength as we age has become a factor of great importance, because it is vital to health, functional abilities, and independent living.
Here are some guidelines for a proper and effective strength training exercise program:
- Consult with your physician before beginning a strength training program. Especially for those who are elderly and have symptoms of hypertension and/or high blood pressure.
- Exercises should be directed at the large muscle groups that are involved in everyday activities, such as the shoulders, arms, spine, hips and legs.
- Each repetition should be performed slowly through a full range of motion, allowing 2-3 seconds to lift the weight and 4-6 seconds to lower. Performing the exercises quickly will not enhance strength gains and may even increase the risk of injury.
- Beginners should start with relatively light weight loads and perform about 15-20 repetitions.
- The key to a safe and effective strength training program for seniors are competent instruction and careful supervision.
In conclusion, there is no other group in our society that can benefit more from regularly performed exercise, than the increasing older adult population. Although both aerobic conditioning and strength training are highly important, only strength training can stop or reverse sarcopenia. Increasing muscle strength and mass in the elderly can be the first step towards a lifetime of increased physical activity and a realistic strategy for maintaining functional status and independence.