Growing Stronger—Strength Training for Older Adults

Research has shown that strengthening exercises are both safe and effective for women and men of all ages, including those who are not in perfect health. In fact, people with health concerns—including heart disease or arthritis—often benefit the most from an exercise program that includes lifting weights a few times each week.

Strength training, particularly in conjunction with regular aerobic exercise, can also have a profound impact on mental and emotional health.

Benefits of Strength Training

There are numerous benefits to strength training regularly, particularly as you grow older. It can be very powerful in reducing the signs and symptoms of numerous diseases and chronic conditions.

Arthritis relief. Tufts University recently completed a strength-training program with older men and women with moderate-to-severe knee osteoarthritis. The results of this 16-week program showed that strength training decreased pain by 43%, increased muscle strength and general physical performance, improved the clinical signs and symptoms of the disease, and decreased disability. The effectiveness of strength training to ease the pain of osteoarthritis was just as potent, if not more potent, as medications. Similar effects of strength training have been seen in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Restoration of balance and reduction of falls. As people age, poor balance and flexibility contribute to falls and broken bones. These fractures can result in significant disability and, in some cases, fatal complications. Strengthening exercises, when done properly and through the full range of motion, increase a person's flexibility and balance, which decrease the likelihood and severity of falls. One study in New Zealand in women 80 years of age and older showed a 40% reduction in falls with simple strength and balance training.

Strengthening of bone. Postmenopausal women can lose 1-2% of their bone mass annually. Results from a study conducted at Tufts University, which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994, showed that strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk for fractures among women aged 50-70.

Proper weight maintenance. Strength training is crucial to weight control, because individuals who have more muscle mass have a higher metabolic rate. Muscle is active tissue that consumes calories while stored fat uses very little energy. Strength training can provide up to a 15% increase in metabolic rate, which is enormously helpful for weight loss and long-term weight control.

Improved glucose control. More than 14 million Americans have Type 2 diabetes—a staggering 300% increase over the past 40 years—and the numbers are steadily climbing. In addition to being at greater risk for heart and renal disease, diabetes is also the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Fortunately, studies now show that lifestyle changes such as strength training have a profound impact on helping older adults manage their diabetes. In a recent study of Hispanic men and women, 16 weeks of strength training produced dramatic improvements in glucose control that are comparable to taking diabetes medication. Additionally, the study volunteers were stronger, gained muscle, lost body fat, had less depression, and felt much more self-confident.

Healthy state of mind. Strength training provides similar improvements in depression as antidepressant medications. Currently, it is not known if this is because people feel better when they are stronger or if strength training produces a helpful biochemical change in the brain. It is most likely a combination of the two. When older adults participate in strength-training programs, self-confidence and self-esteem improve, which has a strong impact on overall quality of life.

Sleep improvement. People who exercise regularly enjoy improved sleep quality. They fall asleep more quickly, sleep more deeply, awaken less often, and sleep longer. As with depression, the sleep benefits obtained as a result of strength training are comparable to treatment with medication but without the side effects or the expense.

Healthy heart tissue. Strength training is important for cardiac health because heart disease risk is lower when the body is leaner. One study found that cardiac patients gained not only strength and flexibility but also aerobic capacity when they did strength training three times a week as part of their rehabilitation program. This and other studies have prompted the American Heart Association to recommend strength training as a way to reduce risk of heart disease and as a therapy for patients in cardiac rehabilitation programs.

Make Strength Training a Part of an Overall Activity Program

Although strength training can be valuable by itself, you can gain even more benefit from an overall physical activity program that includes endurance aerobic activities, stretching activities, and balancing exercises.

Making Sure You’re Ready

Being more active is safe for most people regardless of age. Strength training can be very beneficial; however, people with a chronic medical condition should check with a doctor before they significantly increase their level of physical activity.

Getting Started

The following suggestions can help you get started with strength training:

  • Community recreation centers, churches, and schools may offer physical activity classes that include strength training.
  • Strength-training exercises can be modified to accommodate health problems, for example, by varying whether the exercise is done standing, seated, or lying down.
  • Join a health club or work with a personal trainer for instructions on how to use strength-training equipment.
  • Try other everyday activities that can help you become stronger. For example, many typical household, gardening, and manual labor activities (such as lifting, carrying, digging, raking, splitting wood, and sawing) strengthen muscles. Although these activities alone do not offer the comprehensive benefits of a strength-training program, they can help you strengthen some muscles.
  • Check with your local bookstore or library for a book or video to begin a strength-training program at home.

Maintaining Interest

Strength training provides the most benefits when you adopt it as a regular activity in your daily life. Consider the following tips for maintaining your interest:

  • Vary your strength training routine. After engaging in strength training for a few weeks, try alternating muscle groups or adding additional activity components.
  • Exercise with friends or family to provide encouragement to each other. For example, go to the gym together or sign up for a community tai chi class.
  • Keep a journal of your strength-training activities to track your progress. A record of your activities can help you recognize improvements.

If a new challenge helps maintain your interest, try one of the following tips:

  • Gradually increase the difficulty of your training. If one exercise begins to seem too easy, try others that can help you increase your strength.
  • Increase the number of sets you do for various exercises. (A "set" is the number of times you repeat an exercise. The recommended number of sets varies with the exercise.) As you become comfortable with a certain exercise, try performing additional sets to add variety to your strength training program.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: Accessed April 18, 2006.