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Weight Lifting: Antidote to Old Age

It’s rare to see gray-haired exercisers in the gym. The majority of people who lift weights are young. Yet, according to several studies, it is people who are over fifty years old that need to lift weights the most.

According to research, a seventy-year-old sedentary person will have lost forty percent of muscle mass and thirty percent of strength especially in the lower body. This means difficulty in walking, standing up from a sitting position, and activities of daily living like taking a bath or going to the toilet without assistance.

A study in the Physician and Sports Medicine Journal reports that muscle weakness and the accompanying loss of balance and coordination causes forty percent of adults over the age of 65 to fall at least once a year. Falls are a leading cause of fatal injury in people over 75.

The loss of muscle mass as one grows older is due to atrophy – a decrease in muscle fiber size and number. Scientists believe that the decrease in the number of muscle fibers is genetic and, therefore, is an inevitable effect of aging.

However, the decrease in muscle fiber size is due to inactivity and can be reversed by resistance or strength training. Lifting weights is one example. Strength training also increases bone density and helps prevent osteoporosis.

Never Too Late
A landmark study on strength training for the elderly was done in 1990 by Tufts University re-searchers in a nursing home for the aged. To really appreciate the significance of this study, you have to realize that the ten participants (six women and four men) were frail ninety-year-olds. They were by no means healthy.

Seven of them had osteoporosis, of which six had suffered from fractures. Eight had a history of falls. Six had coronary artery disease. Four had high blood pressure. Six needed assistance with simple physical activities. Seven regularly used a cane.

After eight weeks of lifting weights three times a week, the researchers were amazed to discover that leg strength had increased by 174 percent. Total thigh muscle area increased by nine percent.

Two of the participants no longer needed a cane. One of three people who couldn’t get out of achair without assistance could do so without any help.

Although they lifted eighty percent of their lifting capability, considered “high intensity” strength training, their pulse rate and blood pressure changed very little and those with arthritis did not get any worse.

First step
Subsequent studies in the last fifteen years involving men and women between sixty and ninety years old have all confirmed the benefits of resistance training for the elderly.

Many experts now recommend that strength training be the first step in the exercise program of an elderly person because it helps get the individual ready for endurance exercise like walking.

According to the Harvard Health Letter, “Many older people who are inactive but want to get moving may think that a pair of walking shoes is a wiser investment than a set of weights but the opposite may actually be true. People who have been sedentary for long periods are at high risk for falls because their muscle tone is weak, flexibility is often limited, and balance may be precarious. To reduce the risk of falls and injury, people over sixty who haven’t recently been active should begin by strengthening their legs, arms, and trunk muscles with three to four weeks of weight training (two to three times a week) before walking long distances or engaging in other aerobic exercise.”

The American College of Sports Medicine has specific strength training guidelines for people over fifty years old. AGSMrecommends that older individuals would benefit greatly from two to three times a week sessions of weight lifting to strengthen all the major muscle groups – arms, legs, shoulders, and trunk. The weight should be heavy enough to fatigue the muscles in 10 to 15 repetitions.

A sedentary senior citizen who wants to do strength training should get a medical clearance.

Strength training can be done at home or in the gym. Whichever location, seniors should be taught how to properly do the exercises by a fitness professional.

While strength machines are considered safer because they have more support, some experts recommend using free weights like dumbbells and leg weights because they develop posture and balance – precisely the functional skills many elderly people lack.

Elderly exercisers need to be taught to breathe regularly while exercising since holding the breath while lifting weights can elevate blood pressure.

Although the U.S. Arthritis Foundation recommends strength training for all types of arthritis, some arthritis sufferers may experience flare-ups when lifting weights. If you experience pain two hours after exercise, this means you should reduce the intensity and duration of exercise.

Use a slow movement speed when lifting and lowering the weight.

Be patient. It may take several weeks to adapt to the initial stress of the training program.

Special importance should be placed on stretching exercises to keep all joints flexible. Stretching can be done everyday.

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