by Andrew Hume M.Sc. Professional Kinesiologist
Aging, even in the absence of chronic disease, is associated with numerous physiological changes to our body that contribute to gradual decreases in muscle mass, strength, and function. Such changes lead to the overall effect of diminished physical capacity and increased vulnerability – essentially, a reduced ability to tolerate and recover from, the regular and unforeseen physical stressors of life. Moreover, the growth and average increased lifespan of the older adult population (typically referring to those 65 and older) has resulted in a larger amount of age-related mobility impairments. So, even though people are living longer now – they are often doing so with more disability.
Just a normal part of human aging, you might say. True, but a plethora of science and real-life testimonials tell us that it does not have to be this way, or at least not as dramatically so. In short, there are many older adults living with far more physical disability and dysfunction than is necessary. Strength training, typically using weights or other types of resistance, offers a very accessible and effective solution to literally almost all of the normal physiological consequences of aging – and should be a standard variable in effective treatment strategies for many disease states often associated with older adults (osteoporosis, arthritis, stroke, diabetes, etc).
A properly designed strength training program for older adults only needs to be completed 2-3 days/week to experience significant, long-term benefit – and each session does not need to be longer than 45 minutes. Two to three sets for each major muscle group should be included, with a focus on multi-joint movements such as squats, leg presses, chest and shoulder presses, and rowing motions. It is also very important to include some basic movements performed at higher speeds and some that challenge functional balance and agility.
Research and anecdotal evidence have shown us that even though older adults do not need to be ‘working out’ every day of the week to reap the benefits, it is important that they do work reasonably hard when doing so if they want to see a measurable return on investment. All novice weight lifters should start easy for safety reasons, and do so under the guidance of a kinesiologist or highly qualified trainer. However, the need for relative hard work will ultimately become apparent. Typically, efforts of at least 60% of maximum, working up to 70-80% are going to afford the most benefit, even for people of advanced age (this is something a professional can help you establish safely). Could someone increase their muscular strength from lifting lighter? Of course, but the evidence does suggest just not to the same degree and therefore not to the same level of functional benefit.
Making the change to start incorporating strength training into your lifestyle as an older adult – whether it be at home with some basic equipment or actually joining a community fitness facility – will afford you a significant amount of protection against cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, bone loss, wasting of lean muscle tissue, falls, and an overall gradual decline in functional status…to name only a few. Likewise, a properly designed strength training program for older adults should be individualized and progressive in nature – giving you the best opportunity to restore and maintain neuromuscular mobility and control, improve overall physical functioning and performance in your activities of daily living, and perhaps most importantly – preserve your Independence as an older adult within your family and community at large.
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