Why Older Adults Should Strength Train
Should seniors lift weights?
According to scientific research, the answer is generally “yes.” There are exceptions, of course. Do not begin a strength training program without first receiving approval from your doctor—this post summarizes scientific research around lifting for seniors but does not constitute medical advice.
The American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice per week as part of an overall exercise routine. Safe lifting for seniors can be done in a variety of ways:
- Lifting barbells or dumbbells
- Performing bodyweight exercises
- Exercising with weight machines
- Using elastic resistance bands
As long as your doctor approves, strength training is a safe and excellent way to stay fit and healthy. Here, we’ll cover several reasons why older adults should strength train.
Physical Health Benefits of Strength Training for Seniors
Strength training brings numerous physical benefits for older adults.
Reduced Cancer Risk
Various studies show that regular strength training reduces a person's risk of getting colon cancer or kidney cancer. Other research has found that engaging in strength training reduces a person's chance of dying from cancer of any type.
Scientists also recommend strength training (PDF) as a way for cancer survivors to improve their recovery and maintain their health. Cancer survivors who engage in resistance training also tend to live longer and see lower cancer recurrence rates.
Improved Heart Health
The American Heart Association recommends that older adults begin strength training as part of an overall exercise routine that also includes cardio exercises, regardless of their age. Strength training has major positive impacts on not just bone and muscular strength, but also cardiovascular health. In fact, regular strength training can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes by anywhere from 40 to 70 percent. Researchers have also found that strength training after a stroke can help stroke patients regain lost functions and reduce stress or anxiety.
Muscle Mass and Reduced Fall Risk
As people get older, their bodies tend to develop sarcopenia. The term sarcopenia refers to a decrease in skeletal muscle tissue and strength due to aging. Sarcopenia often leads to problems with strength and motor skills. However, regular strength training can protect against sarcopenia and even reverse its effects by increasing muscle mass and helping to build strength.
People who develop sarcopenia have a higher risk of falling down. Falls can cause serious injuries or even death in older adults. Researchers suspect that strength training exercises reduce a person's fall risk; in addition to increasing strength, weight training improves balance and coordination, which translates into fewer falls.
Maintained Bone Density
Aging increases a person’s risk of developing osteoporosis, a disease that involves reduced bone mass. Osteoporosis can lead to brittle bones that break easily. Like sarcopenia, osteoporosis increases a person's risk of injury from falling down—many people experience both problems together in a condition called sarco-osteoporosis.
Strength training has been shown to protect against the onset of osteoporosis. Experts recommend that seniors combine strength training with proper nutrition to maintain bone strength.
Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training for Seniors
Strength training not only helps older adults maintain their physical health, but also provides many meaningful mental health benefits.
Researchers have found that strength training can reduce or eliminate mild cognitive impairment in rats. This effect might also apply to humans; a routine of both strength training and cardio exercises may lead to improved memory, executive function, and overall cognitive ability.
Mild cognitive impairment often precedes neuroinflammatory disease. Scientists believe that just three resistance training sessions per week can reduce your risk of developing a neuroinflammatory disease such as Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis. Strength training can also reduce symptoms (PDF) in people struggling with mental illnesses such as dementia.
Resistance training is a powerful way to reduce symptoms of depression. Although depression can strike at any age, the mood disorder often afflicts older adults. Strength training is one method seniors can use to fight depression—along with other methods such as medication and therapy.
Precautions Seniors Should Take When Strength Training
Any new exercise routine comes with risks. For the vast majority of people, exercise brings benefits that far outweigh the risks. However, because seniors often take longer to heal from injuries, it’s especially important that older adults take proper precautions to minimize risk of injury when strength training.
Do Warm-Up Exercises
Warm up your muscles prior to your strength training sessions by stretching, walking briskly, or using a cardio machine for 5 to 10 minutes. Warming up loosens your muscles and makes your body less prone to injury during workout.
Keep in mind that your strength training is meant for your health, not for winning a weightlifting competition. People often feel tempted to test their limits, but lifting for seniors should start off slow:
- Don’t try to lift the maximum amount of weight you could lift years ago.
- Don’t worry about “keeping up” with other gym goers—focus on your own progression and improvement.
- Beginning with bodyweight exercises or resistance bands can help you ease into more rigorous strength training.
- If you use dumbbells or barbells, start slowly with light weights and add weights gradually—at most, only a few pounds each week.
Maintain Proper Form
Proper workout form is essential when trying to avoid injuries. The best way to ensure good form is to enlist the help of an expert. Personal trainers, physical therapists, and reputable online sources all promote proper workout form.
The Centers for Disease Control offer a free, downloadable eBook about strength training (PDF). Their guide shares detailed strength training exercise instructions accompanied by illustrations showing proper form. The American Heart Association also provides strength training exercise instructions and illustrations on their site.
As long as your doctor has given you the go-ahead, strength training is an excellent idea for staying fit and healthy as an aging adult. If you’re interested in strength training at home, consider checking out the wide range of equipment we offer at G&G Fitness Equipment.