Teaching Old Muscles New Tricks

Last Editorial Review: 8/15/2006

by Carol E. Torgan, Ph.D.

A Word to the Wise...

Exercise Tips

  • Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.
  • Do strength exercises for all your major muscles groups (shoulders, arms, back, stomach, hips, legs) at least twice a week. Don't do exercises of the same muscle group two days in a row. Give your muscles time to recover and rebuild.
  • Start out slow. You may need to start with 1-2 pounds of weight, or no weight at all. Don't start out with too much weight, which can lead to injuries. You should feel like you're challenging yourself, but aren't near your limit.
  • You may experience some muscle soreness and fatigue at the beginning. This is normal, and indicates your muscles are rebuilding to become stronger. However, you should not experience sore joints or exhaustion, nor should you experience any pain.
  • You can use hand or ankle weights sold in sporting goods stores. Or you can be creative and fill empty milk jugs with sand or water, fill socks with beans, or use canned goods.
  • Do 8-15 repetitions in a row of each exercise. Use smooth and steady movements. Once you can easily lift the weight 15 times, increase the amount of weight (usually every 2-3 weeks). Your muscles will get continuously stronger as you progress.
  • Take 3 seconds to lift or push a weight, hold the position for 1 second, and then take another 3-5 seconds to lower the weight (don't just let the weight drop).
  • Breath out (exhale) as you lift or push the weight, and breath in (inhale) as you relax or lower the weight. You will have to think about this at first, but soon it will become natural. Don't hold your breath during the exercises.

Lifting Lingo

If you spend time in a weight room or around people that regularly do strength exercises, you might overhear the following terms:

  • One Repetition Maximum (1RM): The maximum amount of weight that can be lifted one time. Some strength programs are designed based on this amount. For example, a person may train with an amount of weight that is 50% or 80% of 1RM.
  • Repetition (rep): The number of times in a row a weight is lifted. Eight to 15 repetitions are usually done.
  • Set: A series of repetitions. For example, doing ten repetitions would be one set. Resting and then doing ten more repetitions would be another set, for a total of 2 sets. One set is all that is needed to get substantial benefits.
  • Frequency: This refers to the number of work-outs per week. A frequency of at least 2 times/week is recommended.
  • Concentric Contraction: A type of muscle contraction where your muscle fibers shorten to produce force. This happens when you lift or raise a weight.
  • Eccentric Contraction: A type of muscle contraction where your muscle fibers lengthen while they produce force. This happens when you lower the weight back down. This type of contraction is mainly responsible for the feeling of soreness after exercise. The soreness results from microscopic damage to the muscle cells that then stimulates them to regenerate and get stronger.
  • Sarcopenia (pronounced sar-ko-PEEN-ya): The decrease in muscle tissue that occurs with aging. This is an active area of research and you will probably hear this term increasingly used as scientists learn more about it.

Lee strode across the exercise room to the next weight machine. She leaned over and set the stack of weights to the thickness of several New York City phone books. She sat down and slowly curled her body forward, lifting the weights with the strength of her stomach muscles. After repeating this a dozen times she smiled, patted her belly, and said "I'm trying to work on this area a bit." Then she made her way to the next machine.

Lee Warren Shipman of Maryland is 80 years old, and has three grandchildren. She's had a complete knee replacement and lives "up 22 steps" in a house she designed herself. She has been lifting weights twice a week for over five years. "I think this prevents osteoporosis," she says.

Lee knows that strength exercises - defined as any exercise that builds and strengthens muscles - improve bone density and combat the effects of osteoporosis. Strength exercises are also referred to as strength training, resistance training, weight training, and weight-lifting. But whatever you call them, research funded by NIH's National Institutes of Aging (NIA) shows that older people, even those in their nineties, benefit greatly from them.

The list of health benefits from strength exercise reads like a visit to the fountain of youth. More muscle burns more calories and thus can help with weight control. The increased muscle mass can also help control blood sugar. Strength exercises can improve mood and relieve depression. They can help increase balance, and make getting around a whole lot easier, therefore potentially preventing injury.

Around since the times of ancient Greece, strength exercises are now proving popular among older adults who have learned it's never too late to start.

Preserving Muscle Strength

Research shows that muscle strength declines by 15 percent per decade after age 50, and 30 percent per decade after age 70. Scientists have found that people lose strength and muscle tissue not because they grow older, but because they stop doing activities that use muscle power. The combination of reduced strength and lower activity levels can lead to an increased incidence of falls and decreased walking ability.

Muscle strength training can be done by virtually anyone, according to Dr. William Evans, Director of the Nutrition, Metabolism and Exercise Laboratory at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In research funded in part by NIA, he has shown that frail nursing home residents as old as 98 years (many with multiple chronic diseases) have remarkable increases in muscle strength and size following only a few months of strength training. The results are exciting for scientists because they reveal that even aging skeletal muscle retains its amazing adaptive ability. But perhaps more importantly, the findings have enormous practical significance. Strength gains can lead to greater walking speed, stair climbing power, and balance. An increase in strength can make the difference between being able to get up from a chair by yourself, or having to wait for someone to help you get up.


Exercises for Seniors: Tips for Core, Balance, Stretching See Slideshow

Start Now

You don't need to own spandex clothes, barbells, or a gym membership to do strength exercises. All you need is a positive attitude and a few spare minutes. Exercises can be done at little or no cost in your home. A guidebook and companion video put out by NIA (see Resources below) offer clear step-by-step instructions for exercises. Alternatively, structured programs are often available through local health clubs, universities, hospitals, churches or synagogues, senior or civic centers, or park and recreation associations.

Strength exercises are one important component of overall fitness. The other components include aerobic exercise, balance and flexibility, which are also featured in the NIA book and video. Helpful hints that answer how much and how often to do strength exercises are listed in "A Word To The Wise". Remember to check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

Even small improvements in muscle size that you can't see can have a big impact on the quality of your life. Lee, the weight lifting grandma, has already figured this out. She proudly proclaims, "I am an optimist!" as she makes her way to the next machine. With strength exercises, you can add life to your years in addition to adding years to your life.

SOURCE: The NIH Word on Health, www.nih.gov

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