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Should Older Adults Train?

By Hawkins Williams
Certified Fitness Specialist for Older Adults

Most of us would like to retire from years of working so that we can enjoy the rest of our lives. You look forward to playing with your grandchildren and doing all the things you could not do while you worked all those years. I wonder, will you still have your health? Will you be able to get around to have some fun and play with those grandchildren?

Here are some things that you should know. The tissue that allows you to move is muscle. There is evidence that the rate of muscle loss doubles one pound per year in people over the age of fifty. The loss of muscle reduces functional capacity and lowers your ability to burn calories from fat stores. Let me give you one example of what I mean by functional. Picking up a heavy bag of groceries takes muscle fibers called Type II. These muscle fibers allow you to produce internal force to overcome an external force or any heavy object. Unfortunately if you are not using these muscle fibers, you will lose them and that could cause all kinds of problems. Simple tasks become difficult like picking up a small child or mowing the lawn. Muscle loss may lead to poor posture which in turn can lead to back problems. The more muscle you lose the slower your metabolism becomes. Allow me to give you an example of this. If you are eating 2000 calories on a daily basis and you lose muscle as you get older, this will lead to higher levels of body fat. Higher levels of body fat have been associated with diabetes in conjunction with high fat/high sugar diets and a lack of physical activity.

I will list the benefits of strength training for older adults later in this article. Older adults have begun to strength train starting in their sixties and are getting very good results. You hear that aerobic exercise should be performed three days a week to help burn fat, and there is some truth to that. However, if you were to put on three pounds of lean weight (muscle), you can increase your resting metabolic rate by 7%; now that is something to talk about. The only place to effectively burn fat is in the muscle. So having more muscle is the key to losing body fat. As stated earlier, staying functional is the greatest reason you should strength train. There has been numerous research on the benefits of strength training for older adults and the findings are great.

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Benefits of Strength Training

I will list and briefly comment on each positive effect of strength training. Ralph Paffenbarger, Ph.D. and author Eric Olsen found that adding ten pounds of lean mass through strength training increases the daily resting energy requirements by about 500 calories. Studies by Campbell and Gillette also found that by increasing your lean mass, the energy cost was higher. They attributed this to the energy required to perform strength exercises. Now for the really good news. The subjects they used in their research had to eat 15% more calories per day in the last two weeks of the study then the first two weeks. This may be due to the fact that muscle is very active tissue requiring more energy at rest. What this means is in order to keep the lean mass you gained you may have to eat more food. That is what I call a win -win situation. You will also find that you have more energy, increased functional activity and have more fun. It has been reported by some strength trainers that their levels of self-confidence improved. This was ascertained by Wayne Westcott Ph.D. in 1995 after eight weeks of strength and endurance training.

I quote, "a 12 year study at the University of Florida Medical School indicates that systematic strengthening of the low back (trunk extension) significantly reduces or eliminates pain in the majority of patients (Risch et al. 1993)". By targeting the low back muscles you can prevent excessive stress on the spinal area. If you strengthen the muscle in the back you must also strengthen the muscle in the front. You always want balance in any exercise program.

Let's look at the effect of strength training for those with arthritis. Researchers at Tuft University concluded that strength training exercises ease the pain of osteoarthritis. I personally was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both of my hips. I began to focus more on my strength training, and the result was that I had noticeably less pain.

Osteoporosis is a degenerative disease of the skeletal system. It is a gradual loss of bone proteins and minerals. Research with older men and postmenopausal women indicate that bone loss can be changed to bone gain through regular and progressive strength training. These findings are reported by (Menkes et al. 1993) and (Nelson et al. 1994).

Another benefit of strength training is enhanced glucose utilization which may reduce Type II diabetes, which may be the leading cause of amputations. With the high rate of Type II diabetes in the United States, it seems that children should strength train as well; more about that at another time.

Your resting blood pressure can also be affected positively by strength training. Quoting once again, a "meta-analysis of nine studies on blood nressure resoonse to weiaht trainina revealed averaae reduction of about 3% for resting systolic blood pressure and about 4% for resting diastolic blood pressure (Kelly 1997)". Another study by Westcott, Dolan and Cavicchi in 1996 showed a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure after being involved in an eight-week circuit weight-training program. Circuit strength training is a program where you perform strength exercises starting with the large muscles of the body ( legs and hips) and finishing with the smaller muscles (arms), moving quickly from one exercise to the next.

I wanted to see if I would find the same results in one of my clients with this program. After about six weeks I noticed a lower resting blood pressure in both systolic and diastolic readings.

In the study on blood lipid levels by Hurely in 1988, cholesterol levels were taken from 40 to 55 -year-old men. After 16 weeks of circuit weight training, decreases in LDL and an increase in HDL levels were found. However, further studies on the effects of blood lipid levels still need to be researched before any conclusions can be made about the effects of strength training on blood lipid profiles.

As reported in the sixth edition of the American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, page 159, most experts recommend 8 to 12 repetitions for healthy participants under 50 to 60 years of age, and 10 to 15 repetitions for individuals older than 50 to 60 years of age.

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As you can see, there are numerous reasons why you should begin a strength-training program. You will see that your quality of life will improve with more energy and better sleep habits. As always, before starting any exercise program, please consult with your primary health care provider. I believe that you will benefit greatly if you were to start a strength-training program. If you wish to start a program, just contact Hawkins Williams (Personal Training Solutions My number is 309-530-0479. You may get a recording, so please leave a message, and we will return your call as soon as possible. We look forward to hearing from you, and hope that you will decide to begin a strength-training program. I hope that this information has caused you to think more about your quality of life. Bye for now.

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