I recently experienced a busy travel week that really opened my eyes to the fast emerging field of fitness for frail elderly and senior living center residents. The first part of the week I shared our strength training studies with Beverly Enterprises in Los Angeles, a group responsible for health services in more than 700 senior living centers throughout the country. The latter part of the week, I presented our strength training research at the American Association for Homes and Services for the Aging National Conference in Miami. On my return flight to Boston, it hit me that there is presently a great interest in and enthusiasm for older adult fitness programs. This awareness was reinforced by an article in U.S. News and World Report (September 25th) that featured our senior strength training study, and an article in Athletic Business (October issue) that detailed our strength research with frail elderly nursing home residents.
This awareness is very exciting because no one has more to gain from strength training than older adults. Lifting weights is no longer limited to young athletes who want greater performance power. Strength training is for every person who needs more muscle and functional ability, and no one fits that description better than our senior population.
Consider a 20-year old woman who has 50 pounds of muscle and a relatively high level of physical strength. If she does not perform regular strength exercise, she will lose about five pounds of muscle tissue every decade of her adult life. By age 70 she will have only half of her original muscle mass and a life-changing low level of physical strength. Data from the famous Framingham Disability Study shows that more than half the women over age 70 cannot lift a 10-pound weight, let alone a grocery bag or a grandchild.
Consider also that muscle loss inevitably results in bone loss, leading to osteoporosis. A weak musculoskeletol system is associated with poor balance, ambulatory problems, a variety of degenerative diseases and a devastating lack of independence.
Can strength training help? Absolutely. Numerous studies have demonstrated that strength training is beneficial for (1) increasing bone mineral density (reducing the risk of osteoporosis); (2) increasing glucose utilization (decreasing the risk of type II diabetes); (3) quickening gastrointestinal transit speed (reducing the risk of colon cancer); (4) lowering resting blood pressure and total cholesterol (decreasing the risk of heart disease); (5) increasing low back strength (reducing the risk of low back pain); (6) easing arthritic discomfort; and (7) increasing self-confidence and decreasing depression.
But let's not put the cart in front of the horse. The most important outcome of senior strength training is replacing muscle lost during the aging process. Our studies have consistently shown that older adults regain more than a pound of muscle every month of strength exercise. Outside of the fabled fountain of youth, that's about as good as it gets for regaining lost ground.
Consider the results of our senior study in which men and women between 60 and 80 years old performed one set each of 12 Nautilus exercises, three days a week, for a period of eight weeks. They added 2.5 pounds of muscle and lost 4.0 pounds of fat for significant improvements in their body composition and physical strength. Ninety-five percent of the participants were so pleased with their results that they committed to continue the strength-training program.