By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Now that you're older, you may not spend much time flexing in front of the mirror or trying to add inches to your vertical leap. So why bother lifting weights? The truth is that building your muscles is more important than ever at this stage of life. Muscles tend to weaken with age, and this decline can eventually rob seniors of their active, independent lifestyles. Fortunately, you can reverse that trend with a few simple exercises. It's safe, it's effective, and it's never too late to start. You may even enjoy it!
Should seniors lift weights?
The American College of Sports Medicine now recommends weight training for all people over 50, and even people well into their 90s can benefit. A group of nursing home residents ranging in age from 87 to 96 improved their muscle strength by almost 180 percent after just eight weeks of weightlifting, also known as strength training. Adding that much strength is almost like rolling back the clock. Even frail elderly people find their balance improves, their walking pace quickens, and stairs become less of a challenge.
Among these elders is Sara, 91, who had a lot of trouble walking after healing from a serious hip fracture. But after starting a weight-lifting program in which she practiced either leg presses or leg curls three times a week, she was able to walk a quarter of a mile without assistance and pedal a stationary bike. "I feel better physically and mentally; I feel wonderful inside and out," Sara told the authors of the book Successful Aging (Dell, 1999). "I must go for that exercise three times a week, I must. You have to push yourself."
What are the benefits of weightlifting for seniors?
Improved walking ability. A University of Vermont study of healthy seniors ages 65 to 79 found that subjects could walk almost 40 percent farther without a rest after 12 weeks of weight training. Such endurance can come in handy for your next shopping trip, but there's an even better reason to pep up your gait. Among seniors, insufficient leg strength is a powerful predictor of future disabilities, including the inability to walk. An 89-year-old senior interviewed in Successful Aging said that after two years of weightlifting, "I walk straight instead of shuffling. It gives me lots of energy. My family can't believe it."
Ease in performing day-to-day tasks. By giving you the strength to handle your daily routines, weightlifting can help you maintain your independence. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that healthy women ages 60 to 77 who lifted weights three hours each week for 16 weeks could carry groceries and get up from a chair with much less effort than before.
Prevention of broken bones. Weightlifting can protect you from devastating fractures in several ways. For one, the exercises boost your strength, balance, and agility, making it less likely that you'll suffer a nasty fall. A study at Tufts University found that older women who lifted weights for a year improved their balance by 14 percent. (A control group composed of women who didn't lift weights suffered a 9 percent decline in balance in the same year.) Weight training can also build bone mass in the spine and the hip, so it's especially important for people with the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.
Relief from arthritis pain. By strengthening the muscles, tendons, and ligaments around your joints, weightlifting can dramatically improve your range of motion. It can also cut down on pain by increasing the capability of muscles surrounding the afflicted joint, which eases stress on the joint itself. Arthritis sufferers should begin by using light weights and work up to heavier ones very gradually.
Weight loss. Lifting weights doesn't burn many calories, but it does rev up your metabolism. Overweight seniors who combine strength training with a healthy diet are almost certain to shed a few pounds.
Improved glucose control. If you are among the millions of Americans with Type 2 diabetes, strength training can help you keep it under control. In one study of Hispanic men and women with diabetes, 16 weeks of strength training provided dramatic improvements, comparable to taking medication. The study also showed that volunteers increased muscle strength, lost body fat, and gained more self-confidence.
Other benefits. Studies suggest weight training can help people sleep better and even ease mild to moderate depression.
How can I get started?
You should always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program -- and when you do, expect your doctor to be thrilled with your decision. If you have hypertension, your doctor may want to run a few tests to make sure lifting weights won't cause a dangerous rise in your blood pressure. Fortunately, almost all people with high blood pressure can safely enjoy the benefits of strength training.
Once you get your doctor's go-ahead, you will choose your setting and your equipment. You can join a gym or a university exercise program that offers exercise machines, professional guidance, and lots of socializing, but you can also get an excellent workout at home using barbells, cans of food, or even plastic milk jugs filled with water or gravel. And get advice from a physical trainer before you begin: Instruction on proper technique is very important to help you enjoy the exercise without risking injury.
Ades , Philip. Weight training improves walking endurance in healthy elderly persons. Annals of Internal Medicine. March 15, 1996: Vol. 124, No. 6, 168-171.
Evans, William. Exercise training guidelines for the elderly. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: 1998, 12-17.
Chalmers J et al. WHO-ISH Hypertension Guidelines Committee. 1999 World health Organization - International Society of Hypertension Guidelines for the Management of Hypertension. J Hypertension, 1999, 17:151-185.
Manson JE, et al. A prospective study of walking as compared with vigorous exercise in the prevention of coronary heart disease in women. The New England Journal of Medicine. August 26, 1999, 650-659.
Centers for Disease Control. Why Strength Training? May 2007. http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/physical/growing_stronger/why.htm
Last Updated: Jan 1, 2019