Strength-Training for Seniors

Fitness, News and Advice, Senior Health
on September 1, 2010
Rosa Loud Paula Smith, of Massachusetts, works on her muscle tone.

Last September, Paula Smith, 63, decided it was time to shape up so she joined a strength-training program at Quincy College, in Massachusetts, where she serves as executive dean for enrollment services.

Twice a week for 40 minutes, she lifted weights under the watchful eye of a trainer. By March she had lost six pounds of fat and gained four of muscle. “My clothes fit better, and it’s easier for me to lift things,” says Smith. “I can actually see muscle in my arms and legs.” Smith never imagined she would achieve so much by exercising twice a week. “It’s a regimen that is doable, makes you feel good and gives you confidence,” she says.

A scant 13.7 percent of Americans 50 and older strength train at least twice per week. Yet, it’s “the single best thing you can do to maintain and build muscle mass,” explains Dr. Wayne Westcott, an instructor in exercise science at Quincy College. Best of all, it’s never too late. Westcott has found that regardless of age people gain an average of three pounds of lean muscle mass after 10 weeks of strength training. Elsewhere, people 90 and older had average strength gains of 174 percent and improved their walking speed by 48 percent following eight weeks of high-intensity resistance training–meaning they lifted the weight as quickly as possible.

Strength training also helps you lose weight, lowering your risk for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In February 2009, Cliff Losak, 58, of Tea Neck, New Jersey, started lifting weights three times per week when the scale hit 259 pounds (he’s 6’1″). “I got disgusted looking at myself,” he admits. His Type 2 diabetes was another motivator. A year later, thanks to strength training, a healthier diet and long walks, he has shed 61 pounds and slashed his glucose levels from 500 to about 100. His doctor is so pleased that she took him off one of his diabetes medicines, halved the dosage for another, and told him he could stop his blood pressure medication. Now a trim 198, Losak says “I notice definition in my arms and my stomach. My love handles have all but disappeared.”

Hoisting weights is about more than firming up. It’s good for bones and a research has found that 65- to 75-year-old women who strength-trained once or twice per week improved two key cognitive skills: selective attention and conflict resolution. Plus, keeping muscle strong may be your best defense against a frail old age. “If you don’t use it you lose it, says Patrice Winter, spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “Strength training keeps you functional for as long as possible.” Without muscle, it’ll be harder to get out of a chair, lift a gallon of milk, catch yourself when you trip, and take a walk. In fact, age-related muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia, costs the U.S. about $18.5 billion annually–one reason it’s among the hottest topics in aging research.

Muscle loss starts as early as your 30s but because you’re usually active, it’s not noticeable, explains Kieran Reid, M.Sc., research program manager of the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at Tufts University. Once you hit your 50s, the rate at which you lose muscle picks up.

“If you put a person in his 30s or 40s to bed for 10 days, he loses a little bit more than a pound of muscle from his legs, says Dr. William J. Evans, director of the Nutrition, Metabolism and Exercise Laboratory at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “If you put a person in his 60s to bed for 10 days, he loses more than 2 1/2 pounds. That’s a lot.”

While it sounds counter-intuitive, we build muscle by breaking it down. The muscle then repairs itself, becoming stronger. What’s it take? Just two to three strength-training sessions per week, says Irwin H. Rosenberg, M.D., Jean Mayer professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University, who coined the term sarcopenia. Work on both your upper and lower body, doing two to three sets of each exercise 10 to 12 times. But here’s the catch: As soon as that becomes easy, bump up the weight about five percent–so-called progressive resistance exercise. “Staying at the same resistance won’t have much of an effect,” says Dr. Rosenberg. Using weight machines is best but if you can’t get to a gym, try bands, hand weights or your own body weight. Activities like Pilates, yoga and ballet build muscle, too. Seattle resident Patricia Vaccarino, 53, took up ballet four years ago when she put on weight and started developing curvature of the spine. In addition, a doctor told her that her knee problems–caused by weak inner thigh muscles–made her a candidate for a future knee replacement. Today she takes three to five weekly classes in ballet and Pilates. The result: She has lost about 10 pounds; her back is “ramrod straight” and her calves are “like steel”; her balance and reflexes have improved; and her knees no longer hurt. What’s more, “my body looks like it did before I had children,” she says.

More Muscle-Friendly Strategies
Strength training isn’t the only thing that keeps muscle strong. Here, three more muscle-building ingredients:

Protein. Exercise breaks muscle down, damaging the protein in it. The amino acids in protein-rich foods repair that damage and lay down new, stronger muscle. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams a day for each 2.2 pounds you weigh. That adds up to 47 grams for a 130-pound adult or 72 grams for a person weighing 200 pounds. But Dr. Evans recommends that starting at about age 60, people should get 50 to 100 percent more than the RDA. Good sources of protein include lean meat, poultry, fish; low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk; eggs; and soybeans.

Aerobic Exercise. Insulin, the hormone associated with Type 2 diabetes, opens blood vessels, allowing amino acids to do their muscle-building task. But our insulin response slacks off with age, so vessels don’t open as widely. Researchers have found that walking on a treadmill for 45 minutes restored the insulin levels of people in their late 60s and older to those typically seen in 20- and 30-somethings. People walked at 70 percent of their maximum heart rate, the same moderate intensity recommended for cardiovascular fitness. Though more research is needed, it can’t hurt to do aerobic activity, be it walking, swimming or cycling. “It’ll at least help you keep the muscle you have,” says researcher Elena Volpi, M.D., director of the Sealy Center on Aging Metabolism Research Core Laboratory at the University of Texas, in Galveston. One caveat: The insulin response wears off after about 48 hours; a good reason to make exercise a regular part of your life.

Vitamin D. “It improves muscle function and strength,” says Michael F. Holick. Ph.D., M.D., professor of medicine, molecular medicine physiology and biophysics at Boston University Medical Center. The RDA for D for people 51 to 70 is 400 IUs; for older people, it’s 600 IUs. Dr. Holick thinks we should get even more. Sunshine is the best source of D. Ten to 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure two to three times per week during the summer should help your body make enough D, says Dr. Holick. But concerns about skin cancer mean many of us shun the sun. The best dietary source? D-fortified milk. One 8-ounce glass contains about 100 IUs. Other sources: D-fortified cereal (a cup has 40 IUs); oily fish (3 ounces of sockeye salmon have 794 IUs; 3 ounces of tuna have 154); and D-fortified yogurt (six ounces have 80). An unexpected source: A three-ounce serving of mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light (check the label) have a whopping 400 IUs. Bolster whatever D you get from sun and food with a daily supplement containing 2000 IUs of D, advises Dr. Holick.

Learning to Lift
You can teach yourself to strength-train but to minimize the risk of injury, hire a personal trainer when you’re starting out, even for one or two sessions. “A trainer can show you proper body mechanics,” says Patrice Winter, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. If the cost is prohibitive, ask a trainer if she’ll work with you and a few friends; that way you can split the cost. Don’t forget: If you join a gym, you are usually entitled to one free session with a trainer.

Consulting a physical therapist to learn proper lifting techniques makes sense. But don’t expect your health insurer to pay, even if your doctor advises you to strength train. On the other hand, if your doctor prescribes physical therapy to strengthen muscles around a knee that is hurting or ease shoulder tendonitis, for instance–insurance should pay–though the number of treatments covered may be limited. If you consult a therapist without seeing your doctor–many states allow direct access to physical therapists, plan on paying out of pocket.