Strength Training in Older Adults (Starting Exercise at 50+)

A phrase or remark used quite often when discussing certain forms of exercise is ‘I’m too old for that now’. This is not true, for most types of exercise at least, maybe for wrestling or bungee jumping, but not weight training

There is much interest in the aging process at present. The population of Britain is aging and as such so is the work force. In order that people are still able to undertake manual work into their 50s and 60s, the fitness industry and government should provide more information and incentives to older adults who have remained sedentary for years. One of themost obvious, and yet misunderstood aspects of the aging process is the undesirable change in body composition and physical appearance. Men and women add about 10 pounds of bodyweight every decade during the midlife years.

The typical response to this, is to diet. However, dieting without exercise does not have a very high record of success. This is thought to be due to the fact that about 25% of weight lost during low calorie dieting is muscle tissue, which is already in short supply among senior individuals.

Research shows that men and women lose more than five pounds of lean body mass (mostly muscle) every decade of life due to disuse. So the 10 pound per decade increase in bodyweight represents a 20 pound problem with respect to body composition.

This progressive loss of muscle tissue is largely responsible for a two to five percent decrease in resting metabolism. Dieting may exacerbate the problem by further reducing muscle tissue and metabolic rate. 

While adults should participate in aerobic and endurance activities, one study of middle aged runners, should that these individuals lost 5 pounds of muscle mass over a 10 year period in spite of their activity levels. However, more positive is that research has also shown that seniors adapt to resistance training virtually the same as younger individuals. Strength training is effective for adding muscle, losing fat, raising metabolic rate and increasing daily energy expenditure. A study conducted in Tuft University, USA, showed that after 12 weeks of strength training, for 30 minutes, 3 times a week, raised the resting metabolism of senior individuals (50 – 80) by 7%, and increased their daily energy expenditure by around 15%. They replaced muscle, reduced fat, and could eat about 350 more kcals a day in the process! 

In addition to replacing muscle tissue, research reveals that men and women of all ages can increase their bone mineral density through strength training. Another benefit of strength training is enhanced glucose metabolism, that may reduce the risk of adult onset diabetes.

Research has shown a 23% increase in glucose metabolism after 4 months of strength training. Another study by Koffler – 1992, showed a 56% increase in gastrointestinal transit speed after 3 months of strength training. This is thought to reduce the risk of colon cancer. Other benefits of strength training include alleviation of arthritic pain (Rish et al, 1992) lower resting blood (contrary to what many believe!) and improved blood cholesterl profiles (Hurley et al 1988). In fact, it is now accepted as fact, that weight training is an essential component of a senior individuals exercise regime.

So what type of resistance exercise Can Older People Do? 

Training Exercise: One exercise for each of the major muscle groups. One study reported excellent results from just three compound exercises – leg press, bench press and compound row. 

Training frequency: Two or three times per week. DeMichele et al (1996) found that two and three training sessions per week were equally as effective in terms of strength development, whilst Westcott and Guy (1996) found that training twice a week was 90% as effective as training 3 times a week in terms of body composition. 

Training Sets: Studies comparing one and three sets of exercise found no significant differences in terms of strength for the first three months of training. It is therefore suggested that senirs begin with performing one set of each exrcise. 

Training Resistance: Generally loads of 60 to 90% of maximal are required for muscular development. Training with 70 to 80% of maximum resistance is generally recommend for al. no injuries have yet been reported in seniors training at this intensity. 

Training Repititions: Most people can perform about 8 repetitions with their 80% maximum, and 12 repetitions with their 70% maximum. Therefore between 8 and 12 repititions is generally recommended. 

Training Progression: It is advisable to add a little weight whenever 12 repetitions can be completed in proper form adding about 5% or less is recommended. 

Training Speed: It is recommended that all individuals (unless training for sport), take two seconds fot the more demanding lifting phase (concentric) and four seconds for the less demanding lowering phase (eccentric). 

Training Technique: Seniors should always practice proper posture, position stability and back support. Older adults should breathe continuously to avoid unnecessary short term rises in blood pressure. It is recommended to exhale on the more demanding lifting phase and inhale on the lowering movement (eccentric). 

Should Elderly People Exercise with Weights?

Regular strength training in seniors has been shown to increase muscle mass by more than one pound per month, and increase resting metabolism by more than two percent per month, thereby reversing the degenerative processes associated with aging.

About Drew

MMA, Fitness & Marketing enthusiast from North Wales, UK. A Stoic Hippy with no hair. Not to boast but - 1st Class Degree in Sports Science from Loughborough, MSc in Nutrition from the University of Liverpool. 20 years experience of weight & fitness training.
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