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 a person's mental and emotional health.

Research and Background about Strength Training

Scientific research has shown that exercise can slow the physiological aging clock. While aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, or swimming, has many excellent health benefits—it maintains the heart and lungs and increases cardiovascular fitness and endurance—it does not make your muscles strong. Strength training does. Studies have shown that lifting weights two or three times a week increases strength by building muscle mass and bone density.

Stage 1 Exercises

The following four exercises comprise Stage 1 of the Growing Stronger Program, developed by Tufts University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When you've been doing the exercises of this stage for at least two weeks, or if you are fairly fit right now, you can add the exercises in Stage 2.

Squats. A great exercise for strengthening hips, thighs, and buttocks. Before long, you'll find that walking, jogging, and climbing stairs are a snap!

In front of a sturdy, armless chair, stand with feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms out so they are parallel to the ground and lean forward a little at the hips.

Making sure that your knees never come forward past your toes, lower yourself in a slow, controlled motion, to a count of four, until you reach a near-sitting position.

Pause. Then, to a count of two, slowly rise back up to a standing position. Keep your knees over your ankles and your back straight.

Repeat 10 times for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then complete a second set of 10 repetitions.

Wall Pushups. This exercise is a modified version of the push-up you may have done years ago in physical education classes. It is less challenging than a classic push-up and won't require you to get down on the floor—but it will help to strengthen your arms, shoulders, and chest.

Find a wall that is clear of any objects—wall hangings, windows, etc. Stand a little farther than arm's length from the wall.

Facing the wall, lean your body forward and place your palms flat against the wall at about shoulder height and shoulder-width apart.

To a count of four, bend your elbows as you lower your upper body toward the wall in a slow, controlled motion, keeping your feet planted.

Pause. Then, to a count of two, slowly push yourself back until your arms are straight—but don't lock your elbows.

Repeat 10 times for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then complete a second set of 10 repetitions.

Toe Stands. If a walk in the park no longer seems easy or enjoyable, the "toe stand" exercise is for you!

Near a counter or sturdy chair, stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Use the chair or counter for balance.

To a count of four, slowly push up as far as you can, onto the balls of your feet and hold for 2-4 seconds.

Then, to a count of four, slowly lower your heels back to the floor.

Repeat 10 times for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then complete a second set of 10 repetitions.

Finger Marching. In this exercise you'll let your fingers, hands, and arms do the walking. This will help strengthen your upper body and your grip, and increase the flexibility of your arms, back, and shoulders.

Stand or sit forward in an armless chair with feet on the floor, shoulder-width apart.

Movement 1: Imagine there is a wall directly in front of you. Slowly walk your fingers up the wall until your arms are above your head. Hold them overhead while wiggling your fingers for about 10 seconds and then slowly walk them back down.

Movement 2: Next, try to touch your two hands behind your back. If you can, reach for the opposite elbow with each hand—or get as close as you can. Hold the position for about 10 seconds, feeling a stretch in the back, arms, and chest.

Movement 3: Release your arms and finger-weave your hands in front of your body. Raise your arms so that they're parallel to the ground, with your palms facing the imaginary wall. Sit or stand up straight, but curl your shoulders forward. You should feel the stretch in your wrist and upper back. Hold the position for about 10 seconds.

Repeat this three-part exercise three times.

Stage 2 Exercises

When you've been doing the exercises from Stage 1 for at least two weeks, or if you are fairly fit right now, you can add these Stage 2 exercises. When you've been doing the exercises from Stages 1 and 2 for at least six weeks, you can add the exercises in Stage 3.

Biceps Curl. Does a gallon of milk feel a lot heavier than it used to? After a few weeks of doing the biceps curl, lifting that eight-pound jug will seem a cinch!

With a dumbbell in each hand stand, or sit in an armless chair, with feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides, and palms facing your thighs.

To a count of two, slowly lift up the weights so that your forearms rotate and palms face in toward your shoulders, while keeping your upper arms and elbows close to your side—as if you had a newspaper tucked beneath your arm. Keep your wrists straight and dumbbells parallel to the floor.

Pause. Then, to a count of four, slowly lower the dumbbells back toward your thighs, rotating your forearms so that your arms are again at your sides, with palms facing your thighs.

Repeat 10 times for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then complete a second set of 10 repetitions.

Step Ups. This is a great strengthening exercise that requires only a set of stairs. But don't let its simplicity fool you. Step-ups will improve your balance and build strength in your legs, hips, and buttocks.

Stand alongside the handrail at the bottom of a staircase. With your feet flat and toes facing forward, put your right foot on the first step.

Holding the handrail for balance, to a count of two, straighten your right leg to lift up your left leg slowly until it reaches the first step. As you're lifting yourself up, make sure that your right knee stays straight and does not move forward past your ankle. Let your left foot tap the first step near your right foot.

Pause. Then, using your right leg to support your weight, to a count of four, slowly lower your left foot back to the floor.

Repeat 10 times with the right leg and 10 times with the left leg for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then complete a second set of 10 repetitions with each leg.

Overhead Press. This useful exercise targets several muscles in the arms, upper back, and shoulders. It can also help firm the back of your upper arms and make reaching for objects in high cupboards easier.

Stand or sit in an armless chair with feet shoulder-width apart. With a dumbbell in each hand, raise your hands, palms facing forward, until the dumbbells are level with your shoulders and parallel to the floor.

To a count of two, slowly push the dumbbells up over your head until your arms are fully extended—but don't lock your elbows.

Pause. Then, to a count of four, slowly lower the dumbbells back to shoulder level, bringing your elbows down close to your sides.

Repeat 10 times for one set. Rest for one to two minutes. Then complete a second set of 10 repetitions.

Hip Abduction. By targeting the muscles of the hips, thighs, and buttocks, this exercise makes your lower body shapelier and strengthens your hipbones, which may be especially vulnerable to fracture as you age.

Stand behind a sturdy chair, with feet slightly apart and toes facing forward. Keep your legs straight, but do not lock your knees.

To a count of two, slowly lift your right leg out to the side. Keep your left leg straight—but again, do not lock your knee.

Pause. Then, to a count of four, slowly lower your right foot back to the ground.

Repeat 10 times with the right leg and 10 times with the left leg for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then complete a second set of 10 repetitions with each leg.

Stage 3 Exercises

The following exercises can be added to your routine after you are comfortable doing the Stage 3 exercises:

Abdominal Curl. The abdominal muscles provide bracing and stability to the trunk. Strengthening this group of muscles can help your posture.

Lie on your back on the floor, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

Place your hands behind your head, elbows pointing out.

Slowly raise your shoulders and upper back off of the floor to the count of two.

Pause. Slowly lower your shoulders back to the floor to the count of two.

Repeat 10 times for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then complete a second set.

Chest Press. This exercise targets the muscles of the chest and shoulders.

Lie on your back on the floor, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

Hold a dumbbell in each hand at chest level, about shoulder width apart. Your elbows should be bent and your palms should face your knees.

Slowly straighten your arms toward the ceiling, directly above your chest to a count of two.

Pause. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to your chest, to a count of four.

Repeat 10 times for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then complete a second set.

Lunge. The lunge strengthens the muscles of the upper leg and hips.

Stand next to a counter or sturdy chair with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold the counter or chair with your right hand for balance.

Take a large step forward with your right foot.

Bend your right knee and lower your hips toward the floor. Make sure that your right knee stays above your right ankle as you lower.

Push against the floor with your right foot to raise yourself up and step back to the starting position.

Repeat 10 times with your right leg for one set.

Rest for 1-2 minutes. Then repeat with your left leg.

Upright Row. This exercise strengthens upper arms and upper back muscles.

Stand with feet about hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.

Hold the dumbbells in front of your thighs, palms facing your thighs.

Bend your elbows and raise the dumbbells in front of your body, to the count of two, until they are at shoulder height. Raise your elbows slightly higher than the dumbbells

Pause. Lower the dumbbells, to the count of four, to the starting position.

Repeat 10 times for one set. Rest for 1-2 minutes, then complete a second set.

Gaining Grip Strength. If you have arthritis, you may have trouble picking up things with your hands or keeping a grip on them. Some of the exercises in this program will help strengthen your hand muscles. If you're concerned about grip strength, you may also want to add a grip exercise to increase strength and decrease stiffness in your hands. The exercise is simple; it can be done easily while reading or watching TV, and most people already have the necessary equipment at home.

Equipment: Racquetball, tennis ball, or "stress" ball.

Time: Less than 5 minutes.

Exercise: Grasp a ball in one hand while sitting or standing. Slowly squeeze it as hard as you an and hold the squeeze for 3-5 seconds. Slowly release the squeeze. Take a short rest, then repeat the exercise 10 times. Switch hands, and do two sets of 10 squeezes with the other hand.

Frequency: You may do this exercise every day or every other day, depending on how your hands feel. If they feel stiff or painful, you may want to skip a day.

Reprinted from: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/physical/growing_stronger/index.htm. Accessed Nov. 16, 2006.