There are many stereotypes and biases in the exercise community, and I don’t like any of them. We really have a ‘fat burning zone’? Is weight lifting only for ‘body builders’, while machines are for the rest of us? Are machines really safer than free weights? Guys are supposed to lift while girls go to those Shape and Tone group exercise classes right? I could go on and on! While I wholeheartedly disagree with all of those, one pervasive myth that is reinforced by almost everyone is that older people can’t train hard. It’s simply not true!
I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, and in the past few days I’ve seen enough videos and articles pop up in front of me that I thought, “Damn, I need to get this done!” The idea first began when I realized that the very trainers that I work with were holding people back from reaching their full potential. It’s certainly not intentional, but it’s happening; trainers are acting more like cheer leaders than coaches, and offer simple words of encouragement instead of advice and recommendations.
I’m all for positive feedback, especially with those new to exercise or weight training. When somebody is working hard or corrects errors in their form, you better tell them so! At the same time, there’s a difference between just being at the gym, and what you do at the gym. Think about it: Are you proud of the training program that you follow, or do you just say, “Yea, I exercise.”
This idea applies across the board, including the elderly population. Sure, ‘simple’ exercise isn’t going to be bad for them, but they could be doing a lot more! Proper education, time investment, and TLC can help people out of ridiculous classes like this:
Sure, that may be high energy exercise for some, but something must be done to retard this functional decline that’s common in the aging population. One of the best ways to do this is through proper strength training. The following selection is from the NSCA Hot Topic paper, The Importance of Strength Training for Seniors, written by Bruce W. Craig, PhD.
The common perception of the elderly is that they become weak and fragile due to
an age induced muscle wasting. The clinical term for this condition is sarcopenia, and it has
been shown to contribute to the reduction in muscle mass and strength associated with
aging. However, studies involving injury and disuse have clearly demonstrated that inactivity
can also induce muscle wasting, and is a major factor in the loss of muscle mass (3,5,& 6).
Several investigators have addressed this issue by either factoring out training effects or using
age groups with the same training level. Frontera et al. (1) compared whole muscle strength
of young (36.5 + 3 males) and older subjects (74.4 + 6 males and 72.1 + 4 females) and
found that age was not a factor when strength was expressed as force over cross sectional
area (CSA) of the subject’s muscle. In another study Kent-Braum et al. (5,6) examined
inactive young (32 + 1 yrs of age) and older (72 + 1 yrs of age) male subjects, and found no
significant difference in force production with a single muscle contraction. However, they
did show a loss in the older subject’s ability to perform rapid repetitive movements. The
older subjects were unable to maintain the same rate of foot tapping as the young, which
suggests that their ability to recruit fast muscle fibers was diminished. Hakkinen et al. (4)
measured the response of middle-aged and elderly subjects to a resistance training program
that included some explosive conditioning. They found that muscle strength increased
regardless of age but that the older subjects were more dependent on neural recruitment in
the early stages of training than their younger counterparts. Neuronal conduction speed (the
time it takes to respond) does decrease with age (8) and these results suggest that it may
have a greater effect on the ability to use fast twitch muscle fibers rather than slow ones.
A common characteristic of muscle from sedentary elderly subjects is a phenomenon
called fiber type grouping (2,3). Muscles of young and middle-aged subjects contain a mix of
fibers types, and therefore have a checkerboard appearance. In untrained elderly subjects
clumps of muscle fibers have been observed and consist of predominantly slow twitch or type
I fibers. This type of muscle fiber distribution has also been shown in patients with certain
neural diseases (7) and it has been suggested that re-innervation is responsible for the effect
(2,3,7). The basic theory states that fast twitch motor neurons, which are connected to type
IIa muscle fibers, atrophy and die by a process called apoptosis when they are not recruited
over long periods of time. Therefore, extended periods of inactivity and a decrease in the
recruitment of fast muscle fibers in the elderly may contribute to the apoptosis (programmed
cell death) of fast twitch motor neurons. With the loss of their motor neurons type IIa
muscles fibers must be re-innervated to survive. Adjacent slow twitch perform this task by
forming new synapses with the type IIa fibers. This changes the fibers’ stimulation pattern
from high intensity, low frequency to low intensity, high frequency. This alteration in
stimulation pattern changes the chemical make up of the fiber (2,3,7), and converts these
fast twitch fibers to slow twitch. The evidence for this theory is found in both animal (2) and
human models (3).
It has been shown that resistance training can enhance muscle mass and function
even in 90 year old subjects (1,7), and is the most effective way to maintain the quality of life
as we age. Much of the research in this area has examined whole muscle changes, and
therefore has not been able to identify the structural alterations that resistance training
induces. The technical ability to measure both functional and molecular characteristics of
single human muscle fibers has been established and is used to study the effects of disuse on
skeletal muscle in the elderly (9-11). The functional data of single muscle fibers in older
male subjects performing 12 weeks of progressive resistance training was reported and
demonstrates that both type I and type II fibers increased in size, produced a greater
contraction velocity, and were more powerful following training. The effects were more
predominant in the type I fibers than type II. In short this research has shown that
resistance training can alter muscle growth, and may have an effect on the type of muscle
Anyone who has reviewed the literature on aging and exercise realizes that a
tremendous amount of research has been conducted in this area and has shown that
resistance training can be safely performed by the elderly if done correctly. What the
research literature does not give is an exact training program for this population. However,
we do know that the basic guidelines for resistance training in younger individuals can be
used if certain precautions are taken. The first of these is make sure you pre-test and/or
screen your subjects prior to starting their training. Anyone over the age of 40 should go
through a health screening before they initiate any exercise program to insure their safety and
to identify any possible limitations (risks) they may have to exercise. Depending on the
initial fitness level of your subjects I advise a slow approach in dealing with them, especially
if you are working with older females who may have little or no lifting experience. Always
start with familiarization sessions that stress proper form and technique, the concept of
breathing properly, and why they should avoid locking out their joints at the end of specific
lifts. In my opinion free weights produce better results than machines but I would start
older subjects with machines because it reduces their learning curve and is not as
intimidating. Free weights can be introduced once they establish a strength base (6-8
weeks), and can be mixed with the machines.
The physiology is the important part here, as I’d rather not recommend people using machines. However, body weight and free weight exercises, despite the best directions, may be intimidating to those who aren’t working directly with a trainer or coach. Ideally, trainers would have a big enough tool box that allows them to select exercises that were best suited for the needs of the body in front of them, instead of addressing an injury or age with blanket applications.
Automatically assuming that older populations can’t properly strength train is limiting in numerous ways. By telling them ‘No’, we prevent many perfectly capable people from starting in the first place. Without the positive adaptations that exercise provides, they succumb to the aging process before their time. The following chart is from THIS article, first printed in the December 2005 issue of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch. It discuss the connection between Exercise and Aging, and if it’s possible to “Walk Away From Father Time.” I’ve pulled out this fabulous chart comparing the results of both the aging process and exercise.
Exercise vs. aging
|Effect of aging||Effect of exercise|
|Heart and circulation|
|Resting heart rate||Increase||Decrease|
|Maximum heart rate||Decrease||Slows the decrease|
|Maximum pumping capacity||Decrease||Increase|
|Heart muscle stiffness||Increase||Decrease|
|Blood vessel stiffness||Increase||Decrease|
|Number of red blood cells||Decrease||No change|
|Blood viscosity (“thickness”)||Increase||Decrease|
|Maximum oxygen uptake||Decrease||No change|
|Speed of emptying||Decrease||Increase|
|Calcium content and strength||Decrease||Increase|
|Muscle mass and strength||Decrease||Increase|
|LDL (“bad”) cholesterol||Increase||Decrease|
|HDL (“good”) cholesterol||Decrease||Increase|
|Sex hormone levels||Decrease||Slight decrease|
|Nerve conduction and reflexes||Slower||Decrease|
|Quality of sleep||Decrease||Increase|
|Risk of depression||Increase||Decrease|
If that doesn’t make you consider a proper exercise program while you age, I’m not quite sure what will! Alright, maybe that’s a lie, because I’ve found a small collection of some strong seniors that should inspire you, your parents, or your grandparents (depending on your age) to get into the gym and get after it!
This first video is of an adorable older woman doing Squats and Rows with the TRX, and they look pretty solid! Barb is 80 years and trains at Transformation Training and Fitness, in Carlyle, PA. I think that awesome background music keeps her movin’ and groovin’!
Next up is a video of one of Mike Boyle’s clients doing barefoot tempo runs. From the video description: “This is one my clients, Steve Belkin, running barefoot intervals at 60 years old. I love to post videos of my clients doing things that many trainers might think are not possible based on age or gender. I think it is important to empower our clients with demonstrations of what you “can do”. This would be best described as intensive tempo. Not a full sprint but, a good long stride. I think that tempo running has great corrective value and can “undo” much of the damage done by jogging.”
This video is of Masters powerlifting Tom Jones squatting 273 for a triple. Who says the aged can’t be strong?
This is a video of Nia Shanks’ mom setting a PR for her age and weight class in the SPF. 255lbs at 50 years old. Can you do that? What a simple question. The important one is “Why not?”
Let’s follow that with a video of Nick Tumminello’s 74 year old client pushing the Prowler. This is just awesome.
The last video that I have for you is from Joe Sansalone, and it shows his 72 year old client John Owens does feet elevated TRX rows. This is textbook form, even if you probably won’t find inverted rows in a textbook. This is proof that a good trainer and the right mindset can do anything with a willing body.
I hope that the research and videos above helped make you think about the importance and possibility for effective strength training in older populations. Fitness professionals should be educating and motivating their clients to do better, regardless of experience, weight, gender, or age. Strength is a skill that can be developed and improved upon independent of these factors, and provides more well rounded benefits than many other exercise modalities. If you’re a senior who isn’t strength training, what are you waiting for?! If you know one who needs to start, try to show them safe compound exercises that allow them to move their body smoothly and effectively. Finally, if you’re a trainer; don’t hold back! This population can benefit immensely from proper training, and can handle a lot more than you think! If you’re still undecided, I’ll leave you with THIS article, about a 90 year old man who’s been using high intensity interval training to stay in shape.
Let’s close with a
message in a bottle quote from Sting, which I think sums up my views on the matter: