... older adults aging stronger
Strength training is appropriate for, and of the utmost importance to older adults. For the purpose of this article we will define older adults as greater than fifty-five years of age or less than fifty-five years of age but deconditioned to physical activity. Older adults are lead to believe that a significant loss of ability is a normal part of the aging process. At sixty years old grandpa may be able to take the grandchildren for a walk but why shouldn’t he be able to take them for a bike ride, play a game of tag, or adventure on that seven mile hike? At seventy is it really satisfactory that grandma can only get out of her chair with assistance? At eighty is it truly acceptable that grandpa has fallen for the second time this month? “Oh but grandma and grandpa are still sharp as a tack.” Mental capacity is extremely important but so is physical ability, and loss of physical ability is largely preventable. Strength is critical for quality of life, longevity, and is entirely appropriate for the older adult.
A critical loss of strength and ability does not have to be a normal part of the aging process. Largely because the general adult population is sedentary, significant muscle loss occurs during aging. Higher threshold motor units, responsible for power production, are the first to go. This loss of muscle also means a loss of metabolic machinery and a decrease in metabolic rate. The result of this loss is an increase in body fat. Additionally, connective tissue quality changes and bone density decreases. Due to these myriad of changes, 15% of performance can be lost every ten years. (Keller, Englehardt, 2013).
With strength training pathological atrophy can be reduced to less than 5% per ten years, preserving quantity and quality of life. This means that strength loss is largely preventable. Loss of strength is also reversible. Even ninety year olds demonstrated an improvement to muscle mass, strength, proprioception, balance, and overall physical performance with properly applied strength training (Fundazioa, 2013).
Quality of life is an entirely subjective self assessment of living a desirable life. For the majority, being physically capable is highly integral to a desirable life, whether or not it is realized. Being able to be independent, stand unassisted, walk, hike, swim, play with the little ones, basketball with friends, and pull a big deadlift cheered on by your team is part of a desirable life. Physical ability allows you to live life on your terms not based on preventable limitations.
As if living a desirable life is not enough, neglect physical pursuits for long enough and critical functions can be lost, leading to morbidity and mortality. As discussed in part one, grip strength alone correlates with life expectancy (Leong et al., 2015), death being the ultimate disability. Less obviously is the ability to stand independently, a function of strength, often taken for granted. However, we all know the older adult or deconditioned person that requires assistance to stand. It often starts from difficult positions and advances to standing even under optimal conditions. What may seem like an inconvenience at first suddenly becomes a terrifying ordeal when alone or after a fall. Inconvenience becomes life threatening. As an intensive care nurse I work with this population on a daily basis, and have seen many lives lost in painful and unfortunate ways. This is preventable and likely reversible under the guidance of an expert strength coach.
Independent ambulation is another critical function of strength. Being able to walk independently, without the threat of falling, is critical to independence and safety. Once again this critical loss of strength is highly inconvenient but also terribly deadly. A single fall can lead to fracture, brain hemorrhage, and death. In one study resistance training improved walking endurance 28% over 3 months, where walking by itself failed to create any improvement. (Ades et al. 1996). Stronger legs walk better and for longer.
Walking is not only reliant upon a critical level of strength but also balance. Balance as previously discussed, is improved through strength training. At a fundamental level, barbell training is the act of balancing a loaded object over the mid-foot throughout an effective range of motion. With improved balance comes reduced fall risk, leading to improved quality and quantity of life.
Weight training is entirely appropriate for older adults. Utilizing barbells and other implements a person can be loaded from one pound to a thousand pounds. Utilizing boxes, bands, and other implements, range of motion can be reduced to an appropriate level, and a person can be unloaded to use sub-bodyweight. Creaky shoulders, old knees, and sore low backs can be worked around, but also improved through proper movement. Proper movement implies correctly performed exercises, where an exercise cannot be judged based upon its incorrect application or execution. Where proper movement cannot be achieved due to restrictions and limitations; substitutions, adjustments, and alternatives are available when guided by an expert strength coach. Older adults, even ninety plus older adults, can effectively and safely strength train.
A fifty year old will likely need very little adjustment when compared to their younger counterparts. A ninety year old will require significant changes. Ultimately older adults and females are the same species as their male counterparts that barbell training is often attributed to, and therefore older adults will respond similarly. The primary adjustment that needs to be made for older adults will often be to frequency and volume of training to account for their diminished recovery capacity. With proper adjustment the older adult can make progress for years while strength training.
You should not willingly accept a decline in physical ability as you age as it is largely preventable and reversible. Live life on your own terms and return you body from its diseased state to that which it was intended. Live a full and fulfilling life without restriction. Strength is in everyone, and older adults are strong!
“Getting old is getting old” – ICU Patient
Author: Jordan Stanton