Strength Training is a Must at Any Age

Last month, we explored the importance and benefits of exercise for individuals who are 65 or older, with a specific emphasis on cardiovascular training. This month we shift our focus to resistance training, explaining why resistance training is just as important as aerobic activity, and highlight the current industry recommendations for seniors.

Remember, however, that the American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association recommend working with your personal health professional to develop an individualized program based on your current health and goals.

Resistance Training Benefits

Once we get past the age of 25, the amount of loss in lean body mass can range between 2 and 4 percent per decade with discontinued use. The annual average is 10 ounces of lean body mass, which is mostly in the form of muscle tissue. That’s a total of 25 pounds of muscle over a 40-year period!

This gradual loss of muscle strength is the primary reason seniors have difficulty performing the tasks of daily living. However, it is not an inevitable result of aging, but rather due to a lack of use. In fact, the rate of muscle loss can be reduced to a mere five-tenths of a percent per decade through consistent training.

Evidence also suggests that exercise might decrease the rate of bone loss associated with osteoporosis and reduce the likelihood of falls that result in hip fractures. Unintentional injury, which often results from a fall, ranks as the sixth leading cause of death among people over 65 years of age. And muscle weakness is believed to be a big risk factor for falling.

Additional benefits to resistance training include:

  • Increased metabolic rate
  • Reduced body fat
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Improved blood lipid levels
  • Reductions in low back pain, arthritic pain, and depression.

This is even more reason for seniors to include resistance training as part of their workout regimen. Outlined below are the current industry guidelines for resistance training for seniors, as well as some exercises to get you started.

According to resistance exercise guidelines from the ACSM and from Dr. Wayne Wescott, PhD, a strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, including the American Senior Fitness Association:

  • Adults should train each major muscle group two or three days each week using a variety of exercises and equipment.
  • Very light or light intensity is best for older people or previously sedentary adults starting exercise.
  • Two to four sets of each exercise will help adults improve strength and power. But beginners should start with one set and gradually add more (e.g. one set every four weeks)
  • For each exercise, 8-12 repetitions improve strength and power, 10-15 repetitions improve strength in middle-age and older people starting exercise, and 15-20 repetitions improve muscular endurance.
  • For those with limiting chronic conditions, it is advisable to begin with lighter weight loads that allow about 15 reps per set.
  • Adults should wait at least 48 hours between resistance training sessions of the same muscle group. Up to 72 to 96 hours of recovery may be needed for beginners or if high levels of soreness are experienced.
  • Perform one exercise for each of the main muscle groups.
  • Use controlled movement speeds when performing strength exercises, focusing on developing a pain-free full range of motion and focusing on maintaining posture and technique.
  • Whenever the repetition goal can be performed with proper form to achieve muscle fatigue, raise the weight by 5 percent for exercises that are applicable.


Squat with Dumbbell Curl to Press: Stand with your feet hip-width apart holding a pair of dumbbells. Slowly descend into a squat by hinging at your hips and bending your knees simultaneously, keeping your weight in your heels, like you’re sitting in a chair. Return to the standing position and perform a bicep curl, flexing at your elbows with your palms facing each other, then immediately press the dumbbells overhead. With control, bring the dumbbells back down to your sides by reversing the arm motion. That counts as one rep. Repeat the entire sequence for the desired number of reps.

Resistance Band Chest Press: Loop one or two bands around a secured anchor point. Begin in a staggered stance, facing away from the anchor point and holding a handle in each hand, elbows bent at 90 degrees and palms facing down. Slowly, extend your arms out in front of you at chest level until your arms are completely straight. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Resistance Band Rows: Loop one or two bands around a secured anchor point. Begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, holding both handles and facing the anchor point with your arms extended in front of you. Slowly pull the handles toward you, keeping your elbows in, pulling and squeezing your shoulder blades together until your hands reach to about either side of your waist. Make sure you are not shrugging at the shoulders throughout the movement. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps.

Stationary Lunge: Begin in a split stance position, slightly longer than a normal stride, with your front foot flat and you resting on the ball of your back foot. In a straight line, slowly lower your body toward the ground by flexing your knees until your front thigh is parallel (or close to) the floor. You should remain light on your back leg, keeping most of your weight distribution on the front leg, and your front shin should be straight up and down (knee stays behind the toes). Slowly raise back up to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps before switching sides.

Modifications: Shorten your range of motion if you experience any knee pain. Have your arms out to the side or use a stick, chair or wall if you need assistance with balance.

Dumbbell Scaption: Hold a light pair of dumbbells with your palms facing forward, and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Slowly begin to raise the dumbbells directly at your sides (at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock), keep your palms facing forward until your arms are parallel to the floor. Make sure you’re not shrugging at the shoulders during the movement. Return the weights down to your side and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Sources: American College of Sports Medicine Exercise Guidelines for Seniors, “Specialized Strength Training: Winning Workouts for Specific Populations” by Wayne Westcott, PhD, and Susan Ramsden


Current Cardio Guidelines for Seniors

Many of us exercise to remain vibrant and active throughout our entire lives. Though none of us is exempt from aging, we can slow the process with regular exercise. Even better, we can reap the same benefits of exercise well into our 60s and beyond — benefits that include increased strength, improved balance, more endurance, higher bone density, lower blood pressure and decreased risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

With an expected 71 million seniors in the U.S. by 2030, there is an increasing amount of interest in exercise and, more importantly, the recommendations that go with senior fitness. Not surprisingly, the current American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines for adults older than 65 are essentially the same to those who are younger. The guidelines are broken down into three categories: cardiovascular training, resistance training, and balance and flexibility. For this month’s column, we’ll cover cardiovascular training.

The effect of aging can have a significant impact on cardiovascular output. In fact, it has been found that VO2max (indicator of overall cardiovascular function) decreases approximately 5 to 15 percent per decade beginning at 25-30 years of age. The good news, however, is that older people can have the same adaptations to regular aerobic training as well as their younger counterparts, achieving a range of 10 to 30 percent increase in VO2max in response to cardiovascular training as young adults. Of course, aerobic activity is needed in addition to routine activities of daily life, such as self care, casual walking, grocery shopping or activities that last less than 10 minutes, such as walking to the parking lot or taking out the trash.

For healthy adults older than 65 — or adults between the ages of 50 and 64 with chronic conditions such as arthritis — ACSM recommends moderately intense aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week; or vigorously intense aerobic exercise 20 minutes a day, three days a week.

The 30-minute recommendation is for the average healthy adult to maintain health and reduce the risk for chronic disease. It should be noted that more is better! To lose weight or maintain weight loss — or further reduce the risk of chronic disease — 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity might be necessary.

Moderate intensity means working at a level of 5-6 on a scale of 10. This should be hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat, yet still be able to carry on a conversation. Vigorous activity is around 7-8 on a scale of 10. It raises your heart rate even more, producing more sweat and still being able to carry on a conversation, while preferring not to.

Also, short bouts of exercise throughout the day are OK if they are at least 10 minutes in length. Plus, moderately or vigorously intense activities performed as a part of daily life (brisk walking to work, gardening with a shovel, carpentry) performed in bouts of 10 minutes or more can be counted toward this recommendation as well.