Last week, I began to answer a question by Donald B. about strength training for older adults. I noted that studies show that resistance training can enhance muscle size and function in older adults (even in 90-year-old subjects), but that the older we get the more resistance training we need to maintain muscle mass and strength.
As a reminder, resistance exercise is a type of strength training focused on building muscle power and size.
Livestrong.com says, “It can be done using the body parts in opposition to each other or another static force – or by using weights or machines.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains the many benefits of resistance training for older adults this way: These exercises “have been shown to increase the strength of your muscles, maintain the integrity of your bones and improve your balance, coordination and mobility. In addition, strength training can help reduce the signs and symptoms of many chronic diseases, including arthritis.”
For beginning through advanced abilities, here are what I consider the best eight resistance exercises for older adults (of course, always stretch before exercising any particular muscle group, and warm up for five to 10 minutes by walking on a treadmill or using a stationary bicycle).
- Gravity and body-weight exercises. Using gravity and your own weight provides some great beginning resistance exercises, such as squats, lunges, step-ups (using stairs), wall or ground pushups, tiptoe extensions, knee extensions and curls, floor back extensions and pelvic tilts or abdominal crunches.
- Household-object resistance exercises. This is a good option for those under various economic constraints. Common household items can be used for many excellent resistance exercises. For example, by simply squeezing a tennis ball or a small rubber ball, you can strengthen your grip and forearm muscles. An inner tube can be used for upper body and lower body strengthening as you stretch it apart using arms and feet. A big book or a small paint can be used to do curls or overhead lifts. A chair can be used to strengthen your legs and lower back by doing multiple squats – sitting up and down – on it. Be creative and look around. You’ll find lots of potential “exercise equipment” right around your house!
- Pool exercises. Pools have numerous benefits. Low-impact water workouts combine cardiovascular exercises with strength training, with little risk of injury. The added resistance of water makes the aerobics challenging. Water provides 12 times the resistance of air because of its density. As water pushes against the body, the movements become more difficult, requiring muscles to work harder. You can work out muscles in your upper and lower body just by making resistance movements underwater.
- Yardwork exercises. It’s the most overlooked fair-weather resistance exercise. Whether you mow the lawn, plant flowers, trim vines, fix a fence or do any of a thousand other outdoor duties, your yard is loaded with potential resistance exercises. But be careful of extreme weather conditions, which we’ve had lately in the South and Midwest. Remember to regularly hydrate and use sunscreen, and don’t overexpose yourself to the sun and heat.
- Outdoor activity exercises. Again, if extreme weather conditions stay at bay, there are many outdoor activities that can fall under the rubric of resistance exercise. From guided nature walks and kayaking to moderate hikes and biking, God has given us an experiential playground on the planet that also serves as our global gym.
- Gym machine exercises. Another option is to join a gym and benefit from the host of exercise machines targeted to different muscle groups. From shoulder shrugs to calf extensions, there are resistance-based opportunities for the entire body in most local gyms.
- Total Gym exercises. One of the reasons I have endorsed the Total Gym since 1976 is it utilizes body weight and gravity to produce some of the best resistance training I know. For example, with the the Total Gym XLS, you can do more than 80 exercises with multiple levels of inclined resistance. An additional benefit of the Total Gym is that it is compact and does the work of most gym exercise equipment with the convenience of never leaving home – no crowds, no driving, no waiting for equipment, no wasted time (in a few weeks, I will share in “C-Force” how I used the Total Gym to rehabilitate my shoulder after I pulled a rotator cuff).
- Free-weight exercises. There has been much research over the past two decades to demonstrate the benefits of free-weight exercise with older adults. But if you are older than 40, please consult your health practitioner and a local health and fitness guide to develop a program suited specifically for you. Though free weights might produce better results, begin with exercise machines for at least the first three months. When you’ve built up your resistance and strength, mix machines and free weights in your program. Only after you’ve established a strong muscular base should you consider only free weights.
Michelle Porter, Ph.D., of the University of Manitoba summarized the explosion of research on the benefits of resistance training by saying: “Older adults can safely get stronger, even in a short time. This is true if the person is an athlete or a frail 95-year-old. Older adults have increased their strength from 10 to over 100 percent in just eight weeks. Some older adults have even reached a strength level equal to someone 20 years younger. Muscle can still grow and develop even in people over 90.”
So no matter what your age, as Jack LaLanne once said, “Remember this: Your body is your slave; it works for you.”
For a more holistic medical approach, my wife, Gena, and I recommend Sierra Integrative Medical Center in Reno, Nev. The people there are pioneers in integrative medicine. They blend the best of conventional medicine with the best alternative therapies.