Working Out As You Age

By Christopher Crown

November 20, 2019 4 min read

Irish poet Oscar Wilde once said, "Everything popular is wrong." We are now in a world of changing norms: mainstream disillusion with the traditional nine-to-five job, different family structures, vegan bodybuilders. A lot is being turned upside down -- including notions about exercise for seniors. One falsity that has been allowed to slip through the cracks until recently is that senior citizens need to do soft, milk-toast workouts because of their frail, failing bodies. But trainers, exercise scientists and health organizations alike now say that a challenging yet responsible strength workout can build resilience in seniors' bodies, rather than deteriorate them further. So when you or your loved ones get the antiquated blanket advice that the elderly should only do gentle, easy workouts, be prepared to stand strong and suit up for strength training.

Doing minimalist workouts can actually create a vicious cycle for seniors, just like if you were to decide to only eat junk food because you realized you were getting obese. The body adapts to the stimulus it is given, and by only doing gentle workouts, seniors are promoting a body that can only handle -- you guessed it -- minimal stimuli. Strengthening muscles, bones and the heart is of the utmost importance for the elderly to preserve body function and quality of life. SilverSneakers is a health and fitness program for people over 65. In the company's online blog, K. Aleisha Fetters writes: "If your workout doesn't include strength training, you're missing out. Strength training can ward off age-related muscle loss, keep your bones strong, promote mobility and function, prevent falls, and even help combat depression and cognitive decline."

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a leader in health research and publicizing national health issues, reported this year that more than 3 out of 5 people globally will die from noncommunicable diseases, with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes accounting for a high number of deaths. Fortunately, resistance training and appropriately intense cardio can mitigate risk factors of these diseases.

The heart is one of the most vital muscles -- or muscle organ -- seniors must care for. Award-winning journalist and NPR health policy correspondent Patti Neighmond interviewed Scott Trappe, a researcher at the Ball State University Human Performance Laboratory, on heart health in the elderly. She was surprised to learn that seniors who had continued more intense cardiovascular and resistance training into their 70s had prevented what society has thought of as a fairly inevitable decline in heart health. A significant amount of that group even showed heart-health indicators similar to those of most 40-year-olds. Exercise can have time-stopping benefits when it becomes a lifelong habit.

While learning this may make you want to jump into action, there are some special considerations for elderly exercise. Although it is possible to rebuild or maintain health of your heart, muscles and bones, even to the integrity of a younger age, starting off too hard or too soon is a recipe for disaster for any age group. Certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist Jody Braverman says in her 2017 article for Livestrong.com that some out-of-shape seniors may need to start with simple walking and progress to more rigorous modalities once approved by their doctor. Consult with a personal trainer, and take a slow yet intentional approach to resistance training. Start small and progress toward longer sessions, higher heart rates and heavier weights over time.

As with many things in life, the theme here is balance. When aiming for consistency over intensity, you can continually create new stimuli and healthy habits so the way you feel defies your age. So pick up some dumbbells and start lifting your way to greater longevity.

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