Strength training for seniors is safe and effective for men and women of all ages, including those who are not in perfect health and those who are aging. In fact, people with health concerns and older adults often benefit the most from an exercise program that includes lifting weights a few times a week. For older adults, a decline in muscle strength potentially has more severe consequences in daily living than a decline in cardiovascular fitness. The aging process is traditionally viewed as a progressive decline in health, but studies show that this decline is most often linked to inactivity. Below are recommendations for an effective strength training program that will significantly improve your overall health.
*Regular physical activity is fun and healthy. Being active is safe for most people, however, before starting a strength training program you should check with your doctor to make sure your strength training plan is safe for your health.
What is strength training?
Strength training are activities that help you build strength, maintain bone density, improve balance, maintain proper posture, improve coordination and mobility, reduce your risk of falling, and help you maintain independence in performing activities of daily life.14 Strength training requires little time and minimal equipment.
What are the benefits of strength training for seniors?
- Strength of the arms, legs, and back declines at approximately 8-10% per decade after, approximately, age 30.15 Physical frailty (i.e., a severe impairment in strength) is an inevitable consequence of a long life. Therefore, an exercise program with strength training activities will reduce the risk of accidents due to physical frailty.
- Strength training can be very powerful in reducing signs and symptoms of numerous chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, and back pain.
- Restoration of balance and reduction of falls.
- Strengthening of bones; post-menopausal women can lose 1-2% of their bone mass annually. Strength training can increase bone density and reduce the risk for fractures among women.14
- Provides a healthy state of mind.
Strength Training, Balance, and Falls
Falls are the most common of all accidental events in the elderly population. Lower limb muscular weakness is the major cause of falls. Performing a regular strength training program will almost always result in improved balance, coordination, and a reduced risk of falling. Strengthening exercises, when done properly and through the full range of motion, increase a person’s flexibility and balance. The causes of falling are multiple and complex and it is important to realize that some balance problems, particularly those caused by irregularities in the vestibular system, may be irreversible. But exercises that challenge balance on one or both legs, coordination, flexibility, antigravity strength, trunk strength, and ankle strength can significantly improve balance of older adults. An active muscular system depends mostly on muscle strength, which serves as the body’s most effective energy absorber. Therefore, muscle strength, gained through strength training exercises, can potentially reduce the severity of the impact if a fall does occur.
Frequency, Intensity, and Duration of Strength Training for Seniors
The frequency, intensity, and duration of a strength training program is going to vary from person to person, depending on their initial strength, physical fitness level, and other pre-existing health conditions. It is important to find the right balance between exercising conservatively to prevent injury and exercising consistently to increase strength.
- As a general guideline, when weight lifting, if you are unable to perform two sets of ten repetitions in good form, reduce the weight to an amount so you can lift ten times in good form; rest for one to two minutes, then repeat for a second set.
- If you can do up to 20 repetitions at one time in good form, without a break, then during your next workout, increase the weight.
- Your exercise plan should involve weight lifting, or strength training, at least three times per week.
Exercise Safe and Smart
Refrain from exercising and strength training if you:
- Have a cold, flu, or infection accompanied by a fever.
- Have significantly more fatigue than usual.
- Have a swollen or painful muscle or joint.
- Have any new or undiagnosed symptom.
- Have chest pain, or irregular, rapid, or fluttery heartbeat.
- Have shortness of breath.
- Have been advised by your doctor not to exert yourself for an extended period of time due to illness, surgery, etc.
Exercises to Improve Your Strength
These activities will help you build strength, maintain bone density, improve balance, coordination, and mobility, reduce your risk of falling, and help you maintain independence in performing activities of daily life. As you’ll see, strength training requires little time and minimal equipment.
Always perform a warmup prior to strength training (and stretching is NOT a warmup). To get your muscles warm and loose, walk for 5 to 10 minutes. Walking will help direct needed blood flow to your muscles, prepare your body for exercise, prevent injury, and gain maximal benefit from the exercise. Warm muscles respond better to the challenge of lifting weights.14
Squats—Lower Limb Strength
In front of a sturdy chair, stand with feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Cross your arms over your chest and lean forward slightly at the hips. Making sure that your knees never come forward past your toes, lower yourself in a slow, controlled motion, until you reach a near-sitting position. Pause, then slowly rise back up to a standing position, keeping your knees over your ankles and your back straight. Never let your knees touch throughout the entire motion. Repeat ten times for one set. Rest for one to two minutes, then complete a second set of ten.
Wall Pushups—Upper Limb Strength (arms, shoulders, chest)
This exercise is less challenging than a normal pushup and will not require you to get down on the floor. Find a wall that is clear of any objects. Stand a little farther than arm’s length from the wall. Facing the wall, lean your body forward and place your palms flat against the wall at about shoulder height and shoulder-width apart. Bend your elbows as you lower your upper body toward the wall in a slow, controlled motion, keeping your feet planted. Pause, then slowly push yourself back until your arms are straight, but do not lock your elbows. Repeat ten times for one set. Rest for one to two minutes, then repeat for a second set of ten.
Heel Raises or Toe Stands—Lower Limb Strength
This is a good way to strengthen your calves and ankles and restore stability and balance. Near a counter or sturdy chair, stand with feet shoulder-width apart. If needed, use the chair or counter for balance. Slowly push up as far as you can, onto the balls of your feet and hold for two to four seconds. Slowly lower your heels back to the floor, in a controlled motion. Repeat ten times for one set. Rest for one to two minutes, then repeat for a second set of ten.
Biceps Curl—Upper Limb Strength
This exercise will make lifting daily objects, such as a gallon of milk, seem much easier! With a dumbbell (or if you do not have a dumbbell, a soup can will work too!) in each hand, stand, or sit in a chair, with feet shoulder-width apart, arms at side, and palms facing facing in front of you. Slowly lift up the weights by flexing your elbow. Keep your upper arms and elbows close to your side, as if you had a newspaper tucked beneath your arm. Keep your wrists straight. Slowly lower the dumbbells back toward your thighs, keeping palms facing forward. Repeat ten times for one set. Rest for one to two minutes, then repeat for a second set of ten.
Refer to the Stretching section on the main page of Health Tips for proper stretches to perform for cool down. A proper cool down will prevent future muscle soreness and help prevent injury.
For more information on strength training, including animations of recommended exercises, visit Growing Stronger
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Growing Stronger: Strength Training for Older Adults. Updated 3 December 2008. Date accessed 15 February 2009. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/growingstronger/index.html
- Lamb, D.R., Gisolfi, C.V., & Nadel, E. (Ed.). (1995). Perspectives in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine: Exercise in Older Adults, 8.
- Appleton, B. Stretching and Flexibility: How to Stretch. Date accessed 8 Feb 2009. http://www.cmcrossroads.com/bradapp/docs/rec/stretching/stretching_5.html
- Alter, M.J. (1988). Science of Stretching. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books.